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12 January 2020updated 08 Apr 2020 9:53pm

Electoral triumph for Taiwan’s China-sceptic Tsai Ing-wen poses big questions for Beijing

The president’s landslide victory will be seen as a major rebuff to the Chinese government’s claims on the island.  

By James Chater

When I find Mina Chao, a 41-year old office worker from Taipei, one of her children is awkwardly perched on her left shoulder and the other nestles under her right arm. Both are younger than ten, but despite the late hour and the thronging crowd outside the Democratic Progressive Party’s campaign headquarters in the centre of Taiwan’s capital – all waiting to hear from the newly victorious Tsai Ing-wen – Chao is determined to stay. “I’m so happy,” she tells me. “Taiwan’s democracy has today attained a new and deeper meaning.”

Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen secured a landslide victory in Saturday’s presidential election, as well as a reduced majority in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s legislature. Her triumph over Han Guo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT), who favours warmer relations with Beijing, will be seen as a major rebuff to the mainland government’s claims on the island.

The scale of the win was all the more remarkable given that, a year ago, many considered Tsai’s re-election prospects poor. In the end she won 8,170,231 votes (57.1 per cent), an increase of over one million on the 2016 election, when she was first elected. The figure marks the first time since Taiwan first held direct presidential elections in 1996 that a single candidate has surpassed eight million votes. By contrast the KMT’s Han Guo-yu won 5,522,119 votes (38.6 per cent), and James Soong, of the People’s First Party, whose position on China is closer to that of the KMT, secured just 608,590 votes (4.3 per cent).

Overshadowing the campaign were ongoing protests in Hong Kong, Beijing’s continued pressure on Taiwan’s dwindling diplomatic allies and allegations of election interference by Wang Liqiang (a self-proclaimed Chinese spy). In a controversial move just two weeks before the election, Taiwan’s parliament had passed an “anti-infiltration law”, which the DPP claimed was necessary to limit perceived Chinese meddling. The KMT refused to vote on the law, describing it as a “political tool”.

The DPP win was certainly bolstered by the protests in Hong Kong. At the party’s final rally on the eve of the election, a powerful campaign video was broadcast which directly juxtaposed a peaceful Taiwan with images of unrest in Hong Kong. The sense of urgency surrounding this election motivated 30-year-old Chen Chu-yuan to vote for the first time in his life. He queued for 45 minutes in Tucheng to vote in the crucial New Taipei 10 Legislative Yuan seat, which the DPP took from the KMT in 2016. The DPP retained the seat in Saturday’s election. “The greatest influence for me were the events in Hong Kong, which have made other young people I know turn out to vote,” he said. Across Taiwan, turnout was 74 per cent in this year’s election; up from only 66 per cent in 2016.

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In her victory speech to the international media, Tsai thanked her opponents, doubled down on her election promises and underscored the significance of the result. She said the outcome had “shown that when our sovereignty and democracy are threatened, the Taiwanese people will shout our determination even more loudly back.” She also had a pointed message for China. “I also hope that the Beijing authorities understand that democratic Taiwan, and our democratically-elected government, will not concede to threats and intimidation.” 

In his concession speech in the southern city of Kaohsiung, the KMT’s Han Guo-yu was defiant. “No matter what,” he said, “when we wake up tomorrow, we still want to see a united Taiwan.” The scale of Tsai’s victory will inevitably provoke questions within the party about its choice of candidate. Han Guo-yu initially demonstrated electoral promise. He tapped into an important working-class demographic, aided by his carefully-crafted populist image. At campaigns, shirt unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up, he would speak from within crowds rather than from platforms. In a stark contrast to the cool statesmanship of Tsai, no effort would be made to hide the sweat that soaked his clothes.

But Han’s campaign suffered early from critical blunders. The most prominent of those occurred in March 2019, when he visited the Hong Kong Liaison Office, the office of the Chinese government in Hong Kong which oversees its ‘one country, two systems’ system. Beijing has vowed to reunify Taiwan under the same ‘one country, two systems’ model as Hong Kong. Still, the KMT’s stance on China alone did not explain the loss. At the KMT’s final campaign rally in Taipei, Cheng Wei-jie, 25, who voted for the party, said, “I think that all of our current political parties are not as innocent as people think. Now, I just feel like I should give Han a chance.”

Dafydd Fell, professor of Taiwanese politics at the London  School of Oriental and African Studies, points to broader, more fundamental reasons for the result. “[Han] made repeated sexist and racist gaffes, handled the debates poorly, struggled with scandals and policy issues. […] To a certain extent, Han gave the illusion of a KMT revival in 2018, but the party has seen weak leadership and unclear direction for a number of years.” Lack of clear policy direction came across at party’s final rally, which typified a campaign that had relied too heavily on Tsai’s weaknesses rather than outlining what the KMT would actually do in office. 

Still, the so-called ’party vote’ gives the KMT grounds to remain hopeful about the future – and the DPP grounds not to get carried away by its result. In Taiwan’s democratic system, voters receive three ballot papers. The first is for the president, which is decided by a simple majority. The second is for the representative for a local constituency, which is also decided by a first-past-the-post system. Seventy-three of 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan are determined via this method. 

The third ballot paper is for the party vote, which decides thirty-four of the seats. These seats are allocated by a proportional representation system, based on the number of votes for each party across Taiwan. A party only gains seats if it surpasses the 5 per cent threshold across the island. 

In Saturday’s vote, the DPP took 33.9 per cent of this party vote, only just ahead of the KMT on 33.3 per cent. Lev Nachman, a Fulbright Scholar who specialises in Taiwan’s party politics, notes that despite the scale of the presidential victory for Tsai, this indicates that the KMT’s support has not evaporated. “This was the Taiwanese voting base clearly rejecting Han as president and endorsing Tsai, but not necessarily endorsing the DPP despite their maintained majority,” he says: “The KMT lost, but it lost because of Han.”

Questions remain over how Beijing will respond to the election. Last night, its Taiwan Affairs Office released a statement saying: “Our political policy toward Taiwan is clear and consistent. We will safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, resolutely oppose any plot or act of ‘Taiwan independence’, and resolutely promote the interests and well-being of our compatriots.”

Yet Tsai’s platform, and the strength of her renewed mandate, pose big long-term questions for Beijing’s strategy on Taiwan. Back at the DPP campaign headquarters, noise surges around Mina, her two children and me as Tsai prepares to address her supporters. As she walks onto the platform, flanked by her team, the crescendo makes her children cover their ears and squeeze their eyes shut. I ask Mina why she feels it important to bring her children to hear Tsai’s victory speech. She responds cooly: “because I want to let the next generation know that we treasure democracy, that we made this choice for them.”

James Chater is a Taipei-based freelance writer and MPhil Candidate in Modern Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. He tweets at: @james_chater

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