How to Read Taiwan’s Recent Elections: A New Administration at a Crossroads


Factors Behind the KMT’s Defeat and DPP’s Victory

On January 16, 2016, voters in Taiwan went to the polls to select a new president and legislators. Tsai Ing-wen, head of the Democratic Progressive Party, won the presidency, receiving more votes than the combined total for her two main opponents, Eric Chu (Chu Li-luan) of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT, Nationalist Party), and James Soong of the People First Party. The DPP also scored a major victory in the elections for the Legislative Yuan, winning 68 of the 113 seats. It was the first time the DPP ever secured a majority in Taiwan’s unicameral legislature. The party won the presidency in 2000 and again in 2004, but in both cases the Kuomintang held on to its legislative majority. So this year’s voting gave the DPP its first complete victory.

Much of the credit for the DPP’s success goes to Tsai for her steady performance at the party’s helm over the past several years. She overcame the weaknesses responsible for the DPP’s defeat in 2012, and she finessed the issue of relations with mainland China by calling for maintenance of the status quo. Voters also gave her good marks for her choice of running mate and for the order of candidates on the party’s proportional-representation list.

Tsai’s electoral performance also benefited from the poor record of the incumbent president, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou, and missteps by the KMT camp in the presidential campaign. President Ma’s term in office was marred by failures of leadership, notably in connection with food safety issues—the controversy over US beef imports and the scandal over tainted cooking oil—and the government’s response to natural disasters. Ma’s missteps in his handling of governance also contributed to the loss of trust in his administration. The Sunflower Movement that emerged in March 2014 was one manifestation of popular dissatisfaction. And many voters were probably also concerned over Ma’s moves toward closer relations across the Taiwan Strait with mainland China.

Another point that we should not forget is the poor performance of the economy, which contributed to popular disaffection with the rule of the KMT. In the 2008 and 2012 elections the economy was a factor that worked in the KMT’s favor. Ma’s administration sought to promote economic growth by maintaining good cross-strait ties and tapping China’s development to energize Taiwan’s economy. This approach was successful up to a point, but over the last few years, even though the economy has continued to expand to a certain degree, this growth has not been sufficient to satisfy the Taiwanese electorate.

The KMT also stumbled repeatedly in its preparations for the 2016 election. The ruling party was initially unable to decide on its candidate to succeed Ma. It finally settled on Eric Chu, but then the running mate Chu selected became caught up in a scandal. Chu did not have a solid support base within the KMT, and as a result the party’s choices of candidates for its proportional-representation list ended up revealing deference to its factional elders, an outcome that did not go down well with voters.

A last-minute development that may have contributed to the DPP’s large vote counts was an incident involving the 16-year-old Taiwanese singer Chou Tsu-yu, a member of the South Korean girls’ band Twice. When she held up the flag of the Republic of China (as Taiwan officially styles itself) during a broadcast, many Chinese attacked her for promoting Taiwanese independence. She subsequently made a public apology, which in turn rankled people in Taiwan.

Particularly for young Taiwanese voters, this incident seemed to negate the approach taken by President Ma in relations with the mainland. Ma had been upholding the “1992 Consensus” between Taipei and Beijing, under which both sides agreed to observe the One China principle. The authorities in Taipei asserted that interpretation of “One China” is up to each side, and Ma understood the consensus to represent an agreement to maintain the status quo, with the People’s Republic of China governing the mainland and the ROC governing Taiwan. But if the PRC rejects the very existence of the ROC, taking acts like Chou’s display of its flag to be unacceptable calls for Taiwanese independence, then Ma’s understanding does not hold water. This was the assessment of young voters. In fact, the attacks on Chou came from the social media in China, not from the country’s government, so it is hard to say whether this assessment is valid. But it is clear that the incident had a negative impact on the KMT’s electoral fortunes.

The DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen following her victory in Taiwan’s presidential election (AP/Aflo).

Two Ways of Assessing the Election

It seems to me that Taiwan’s recent election can be assessed broadly in two ways. The first is to view it in the context of the sweep of Taiwanese history since the end of World War II—or to see it as the culmination of the processes of democratization and localization (Taiwanization) that started in the late 1980s. That was when martial law was lifted, the dictatorship of the KMT ended, and the DPP was formed. The move toward democracy progressed, and in 1996 Taiwanese voters chose a president by popular election for the first time. The KMT’s Lee Teng-hui won the election, but the democratic reform process continued, as did the process of localization, by which people of Taiwanese origin took over from those of mainland origin as the lead players in politics and society.(*1) The DPP’s Chen Shui-bian won the presidency in 2000 and was reelected in 2004, but his victory in 2000 was largely attributable to the split in the KMT, which failed to rally behind a single candidate, and in 2004 he benefited from sympathy votes when he survived a shooting attack just before the election. Also, though the DPP held the presidency, the KMT continued to control the legislature. As a result, Chen had a very difficult time trying to govern.

If, however, we look at the overall trend in the shares and numbers of votes won in Taiwan’s presidential, legislative, and local elections since 1996, we find that the DPP has been gradually gaining strength. And this process has culminated in the 2016 results, which have put those of local origin in full control of Taiwan’s government. As I noted above, Tsai Ing-wen received more votes than her two opponents combined, and the DPP won a lopsided majority of the seats in the Legislative Yuan. This is one perspective for assessing the election. And if one takes this view, it would seem that unless the KMT is able to transform itself dramatically, it is fated to remain the underdog, shrinking to a minor party that speaks on behalf of the mainland.

The second way of assessing the election, by contrast, is to view it as no more than the latest swing in presidential elections under a two-party system. According to this view, voters were saying no to the eight years of Ma Ying-jeou’s administration, but that does not mean that they will necessarily support the DPP in future elections. A year from now, Tsai Ing-wen may be facing the same sort of criticism that Ma has faced. And though the KMT is now in a sorry state, so was the DPP eight years ago, following Chen Shui-bian’s presidency; in that light, it seems possible that the KMT will similarly make a comeback.

Another view is that the KMT lost seats in the legislature in places where its candidates were mostly from the party’s “non-local” camp—largely people of mainland origin—such as in New Taipei City and Taoyuan in the north, while it was fairly successful at holding on to the seats in the central and southern parts of the island held by members of the party’s “local” (or pro-localization) camp—largely people of Taiwanese origin. In this view, voters were rejecting the non-local camp within the KMT rather than the party as a whole.

Also, from the KMT’s perspective, in more than five districts where it had been running neck and neck with the DPP, the last-minute impact of the Chou Tsu-yu flag-waving incident can be seen as having thrown the races to the DPP. In this way, the DPP’s sweep of 68 seats, along with the recently formed New Power Party’s capture of 5 seats, can be interpreted in various ways.

Two Parties at a Crossroads

Does the recent election mark the end of Taiwan’s postwar history? In other words, does it signify a complete shift of power from the KMT to the DPP? Should we see the KMT as having no future?

It seems to me that the answer to these questions will depend on future developments, based on which the meaning of this year’s election will be explained differently. In simple terms, if the incoming DPP administration deals appropriately with cross-strait policy, economic policy, and unexpected flaps, the KMT is liable to fade rapidly from the scene, in which case the DPP’s assumption of power will come to be explained as having been “historically inevitable.” If, on the other hand, the new administration stumbles, the KMT will have the chance to stage a comeback, in which case the 2016 vote will end up being explained as just one swing within a two-party system. So the DPP now stands at a crossroads, with its ability to establish a stable, long-term hold on the reins of power depending on the performance of Tsai Ing-wen’s administration.

Meanwhile, the KMT is also at a critical crossroads. Will it be able to pin blame for its recent failures on President Ma’s administration and survive as a major force? Or will it decline to minor-party status, becoming a mouthpiece for the PRC? The KMT must somehow avoid the latter outcome and hold on to its position as a party capable of winning power.

Eric Chu stepped down as KMT chairman following his election defeat. It is not yet clear who will succeed him. And it is possible that the party will split, with Wang Jin-pyng (the Taiwanese politician who served until recently as president of the Legislative Yuan) and other members of the party’s local camp parting ways with the non-local camp, whose members prioritize cross-strait ties. This ties in with a basic question about the KMT: What members of Taiwan’s society will it represent? Admittedly, the party may be able to maintain its raison d’être as a potential replacement for the DPP if the Tsai administration repeatedly stumbles.

One person who has been identified as a potential new leader for the KMT is Hung Hsiu-chu, the woman who was initially selected last year to be the party’s presidential candidate. If she takes over, however, it will probably be impossible to avoid a split between the local and non-local camps. Meanwhile, now that the DPP controls the Legislative Yuan, we can expect to see a full-scale drive to identify assets that the KMT took over from Taiwan’s Japanese administration after World War II and to demand that the party hand them over to the government. In the face of such a drive, the question will be whether the KMT can maintain its financial footing while rebuilding its organizational base at the local-government level.

The Political Awareness of the Younger Generation

The Sunflower Movement that emerged in Taiwan in March 2014 was widely covered in the Japanese media. Student activists occupied the Legislative Yuan in protest against the government’s attempt to railroad passage of approval of a services and trade agreement that the Ma administration had concluded with Beijing. This movement amply showed that a new quest for greater democracy had started in Taiwan, and it greatly heightened political awareness among the public, particularly young people in their twenties and thirties in big cities like Taipei, making them sensitive to the concepts of democracy and freedom. Their dissatisfaction is not directed solely against the Ma administration; they are also dissatisfied with the existing two-party system and hope for a new type of politics.

This dissatisfaction among the younger generation has been powering a new political current. One key development in this connection was the victory of independent candidate Ko Wen-je in the November 2014 mayoral election in Taipei. In the January 2016 presidential election, most of these young people seem to have voted for Tsai, the DPP candidate, but in the legislative elections their votes were instrumental in giving five seats to the New Power Party headed by Hua Kuo-chang, which emerged out of the Sunflower Movement. They also contributed to the KMT’s major loss of seats in places like Taipei and New Taipei. They are likely to eventually have a major impact on the course of politics in Taiwan, but the nature and extent of this impact is not yet clear. At this point we must neither underestimate nor overestimate it.

The key point to note in this connection is that the members of this generation do not see victory in the recent election as the end of the fight. They are paying extremely close attention to developments in the quest for the sort of democracy that they envisage, and they are presumably conscious of the possibilities of failure of the DPP administration and of a comeback by the KMT based on a shift to a more localized (Taiwanese or pro-Taiwanization) party leadership.

Tsai Ing-wen will not be inaugurated as president until May 20. But the new members of the Legislative Yuan took their seats on February 1. For the remaining three months of his term, President Ma will be up against a DPP-controlled legislature. We can expect to see political gridlock during this period, with the government finding it hard to get legislation enacted. Meanwhile, Tsai will not merely be deciding on the lineup of her cabinet but will also be preparing her domestic, cross-strait, and international policies. Tokyo and Washington are already seeking to contact her, and she may well engage in behind-the-scenes talks with Beijing

The handling of cross-strait relations will be a major issue for the Tsai administration. When President Ma met with China’s President Xi Jinping late last year, the two reconfirmed the 1992 Consensus, and Xi declared that future Taiwanese administrations must adhere to the core of this consensus. Attention will focus on what sort of policy Beijing will take toward Tsai and on whether she comes up with a new formulation to express her own position on the cross-strait relationship.

Under President Ma, the “Three Links” between China and the mainland—direct postal, trade, and aviation links—were fully established, and cross-strait exchanges grew apace. At the same time, however, people in Taiwan became more conscious of their Taiwanese identity. It seems fair to say that the eight years of Ma’s administration have been a period in which the islanders have developed a clear awareness of the differences between themselves and mainland Chinese. Meanwhile, China’s influence over Taiwan grew stronger in spheres including politics, security, and the economy. So the linkages between the two sides strengthened, while their identities moved apart. How will Tsai seek to balance these pulls in cross-strait relations? She has spoken of maintaining the status quo and of recognizing the existence of the 1992 Consensus as a historical fact. The key question will be what sort of accommodation she can manage to reach with Beijing.

Tsai will also face challenges on the domestic front. Economic policy in particular will be a major issue for the new administration. The Taiwanese economy will need to cope with the slowdown in China, whose growth it has been depending on.

In any case, though, the DPP majority in the Legislative Yuan marks a first. Up to now this chamber has always been headed by a KMT legislator. How will the DPP use its new power? As noted above, it may well pass legislation to confiscate the KMT’s improperly acquired assets. But merely going on the offensive against the previous administration will not be salubrious. The DPP will need to exercise a certain amount of self-restraint. This applies not just to Taiwan but to the many countries where power changes hands between parties.

Prospects for Cross-Strait Relations

It goes without saying that Taiwan holds a key place in the international politics of East Asia. And its direction will have a major bearing on this region and the western Pacific as a whole at a time when China’s political, economic, and military power is growing and problems are occurring in the East China and South China Seas.

It is hard to say, however, if the adoption by Taiwan of a hard-line stance toward the mainland would be advantageous for Japan and the rest of the region. An excessive degree of cross-strait rapprochement would set off new geopolitical changes in the region, but a hard-line policy of the sort that President Chen Shui-bian adopted would produce an opposite reaction. The stability in cross-strait relations under President Ma has facilitated agreements between Taipei and Tokyo, such as investment and fisheries treaties. And though US relations with China may be somewhat tense in places like the South China Sea, Washington probably does not want to see instability in the Taiwan Strait. Neither does Tsai Ing-wen, who is looking for maintenance of the status quo under her upcoming administration. The question is how Beijing will respond. The number of visitors to Taiwan from the mainland has reportedly already started to decline. The jousting between Taipei and Beijing over the months to come is likely to attract attention.

(Originally written in Japanese on January 24, 2016.)

(*1) ^ Taiwan’s population consists mainly of Han Chinese, with small minorities of indigenous peoples. The majority of the Chinese are descendants of people who migrated to the island centuries ago. But there is also a substantial minority consisting of Chinese born on the mainland—mainly people who fled to Taiwan when the KMT was defeated in the civil war with the Communists—and their offspring. The former are commonly called benshengren (people of this province [Taiwan]) and the latter waishengren (people of other provinces [mainland China]).—Ed..

China Kawashima Shin Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou Tsai Ing-wen KMT Sunflower Movement DPP