The year is 2018, and the situation is looking bleak for Tsai Ing-wen, the first female elected leader of Taiwan and leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) . Taiwan’s deteriorating international presence, controversial pension reforms, and a slowing economy had seemingly handed much of the political momentum to the nationalist opposition, the Kuomintang (KMT). Indeed, this became evident during the 2018 midterm elections where the KMT stormed to victory, winning 15 out of 22 municipalities whilst winning traditionally safe DPP seats in the south. Indeed, by early 2019, the KMT presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, had managed to secure a 20-point lead in most opinion polls over Tsai.
Yet when one fast forwards to the 11th January 2020, Tsai had secured a landslide victory, with a record 8.2 million votes, brushing aside both candidates from the KMT and the blue aligned People First Party. Furthermore, the DPP managed to maintain its overall majority in the legislative Yuan.
From the brink of certain political annihilation, how exactly did Tsai and the DPP manage to achieve this remarkable comeback? In my opinion, it is clear that China and its apparent threat to Taiwan’s democracy did the most to catalyse Tsai’s campaign.
Indeed, one can point to Xi Jinping’s speech on 2nd January 2019 where he reiterated his support for the one-country-two-systems model of governing in reunifying Taiwan. This marked a turning point for Tsai’s fortunes. Her swift rejection of Xi’s reunification speech arguably served as a springboard for her party to justify its relatively pro-independence stance. This was mirrored in the polls around the time where Tsai’s support started to rise. This helped to arouse the consciousness of the Taiwanese population about the issue of sovereignty whilst forcefully bringing such issues back to the forefront of political agenda. This was further consolidated by the 2019 Hong Kong protests and the apparent threat of China rigging the election through fake news, further reinforcing the idea that Taiwan’s sovereignty was actually under threat. Indeed, surveys suggest that whilst in 2018 only 30% of people saw sovereignty as being more important than economic development, by 2019 this had drastically soared to 60% of people seeing sovereignty as being more important.
Thus, thanks (ironically) to China’s aggressive rhetoric over reunification and its role in curtailing Hong Kong’s sovereignty, rather than the economy, democracy and security ultimately dominated the election agenda. As a result, instead of having to defend a relatively weak economic record, the DPP and Tsai could instead focus on its strengths – its track record of being adherently anti-China in both rhetoric and actions (as demonstrated by Tsai’s continued refusal to recognise the 1992 ‘’one-China’’ consensus).
By positioning herself and her party as being the ‘’anti-Beijing’’ choice, the DPP managed to tap into the growing concern about the preservation of Taiwanese sovereignty, especially amongst the younger generations who have been brought up under the period of democratization. This at the same time also helped to discredit the KMT’s and Han’s message of closer economic ties with the mainland in order to promote economic stability. This seemingly had the effect of enforcing the idea that Han was Beijing’s ‘’preferred candidate’’.
Despite Han’s attempts to soften his cross-strait approach, as seen with his eventual rejection of the one-country-two-systems formula for reunification and his rejection of any peace deal with China whilst the threat of Beijing persists, his inability to shake off his pro-China image proved decisive in his defeat. This was further reinforced by a spy scandal prior to the election in which a man claimed he had attempted to rig previous elections (including the 2018 midterms) in favour of the KMT. Whilst this helped to enforce the idea that China was meddling in the election on behalf of the KMT, it also helped to reopen old scars which have plagued the KMT since democratization in the 1990’s. In this case, it helped to reinforce the stereotype that the KMT is still corrupt – a stereotype the party has carried since its nearly half century authoritarian rule in the latter part of the 20th century.
The final nail in the coffin for the KMT was arguably the candidate selection where, in contrast to the DPP who fielded many youthful, pro-independence candidates such as Lai Pin-yu (an activist who attempted to court the youth vote through her use of anime cosplays on the campaign trail), the KMT fielded many pro-Beijing candidates. This ultimately gave the impression that the KMT were unduly influenced by Beijing whilst suggesting that they were behind the times in public opinion. Indeed, this is reflected by the fact that only 4.5% of Taiwanese currently support the idea of unification with China.
As a result, whilst the result of the election demonstrates the failure in China’s hard-line tactics in regards to winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese population, it also shows that the KMT seemingly remain out of sync with public opinion. Thus, in order for both China and the KMT to have any success in their respective objectives, both need to change their approach to be more in line with Taiwanese popular opinion. If they do not, I suspect that the DPP will continue to dominate the Taiwanese political scene.
Image - Flickr.