Written by Ben Goren.

With Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leading her main rival, Eric Chu of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), by a consistent margin of between twenty to thirty percentage points in all polls, it is highly likely that Taiwan’s democracy will see another change of ruling parties. Rather than offer a premature post-mortem on the KMT, or attempt to explain why Tsai has such a commanding lead, I will explore in this piece challenges that Tsai will face if and when she becomes Taiwan’s first female Head of State.

A Tsai Presidency will face two immediate challenges. The first challenge will come in the form of an institutionally created conflict within Taiwan’s democratic process. As President-elect she will not be inaugurated until the 20th of May, leaving a four month period in which the outgoing incumbent, KMT President Ma Ying-jeou, will remain in power along with his Premier and Government. Ma’s track record of tone-deaf unilateralism, especially in Taiwan-China relations (as seen in his recent meeting with President Xi), suggests he will use this interregnum to his own advantage. Tsai could find herself looking on from the sidelines as Ma pre-emptively attempts to institutionalise the ‘1992 Consensus’ and KMT-CCP relations in a manner that would neuter the new DPP administration’s capacity to define its own cross-strait and wider foreign policy.

An example would be an agreement on representative offices. If ARATS or TAO were to establish ‘feet on the ground’ in Taiwan it would be hard for Tsai to reverse this, even with overwhelming public support, without incurring the wrath of the PRC or the US State Department with its maxims about ‘wishing peaceful cross-strait relations will continue’ and ‘hopes that neither side take steps to increase tensions’. Although it would be deeply anti-democratic for an outgoing President and Government to introduce radical policies contrary to a clear and recent electoral mandate, the existential political crisis currently gripping the KMT has enough force and institutional depth to manifest itself in the President arrogantly swatting away criticisms in the name of ‘security’, or implementing his agenda in blithe indifference to public opinion, ‘for their own good’, even if it provokes large scale protests.

Tsai’s second challenge will come after she formally takes office. Although she will have the power to name her Premier and Government, whether her party has a functional majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan will be key to realizing her policy agenda. If the DPP manages, for the first time, to gain a small majority of seats, Tsai may find herself in a position similar to that of the last DPP President Chen Shui-bian: hostage to a radicalised and ideologically extreme pan-blue rump which tries to block all DPP legislation on principle for the entire four years of her first term. If the DPP wins a clear majority of two thirds or even the constitutionally-significant three quarters of seats, the sense of crisis within the pan-blue parties will be magnified exponentially. Following Pan-blue hysteria in the legislature, both Beijing and Washington may enter the fray, with the former expressing stern warnings not to execute changes that imply Taiwan is an independent sovereign state, and the latter issuing statements of “concern” that, intentionally or not, support Beijing’s position. Supporters of Taiwan’s democracy could again watch irony nailed to the crucifix of realpolitik.

The first terms of Chen Shui-bian and President Obama offer several lessons for Tsai. She should steer clear of well-intentioned attempts to generate a spirit of bi-partisanship. Both Chen and Obama squandered political capital and, in Obama’s case, a congressional democratic majority, in pointless bi-partisanship. The KMT’s heavy defeat in the 2014 local elections, and the unpopularity of Ma’s China policies were symptoms of a collapse of authority stemming from crude attempts to indoctrinate, patronise, and coerce a public wary of making any radical changes to Taiwan’s status and the nature of cross-strait relations. Hung Hsiu-chu, the openly pro-China KMT Presidential candidate whom the KMT dismissed 90 days before the election, drew strong support from the party’s increasingly elderly base who continue to identify first and foremost with China, not Taiwan. By contrast, the young and educated, the vast majority of whom identify with Taiwan as a sovereign country separate from China, overwhelmingly support Tsai. Thus, even as the KMT’s base shrivels over time, support for Tsai’s pro-Taiwan policies can potentially expand.

If the DPP wins a majority of seats in the legislature, Tsai should not ‘reach out across the aisle’ but instead choose a government comprised of clean and capable individuals. She should resist the urge to allow Ker Chien-ming to become Speaker, asking instead that her party caucus demonstrate ‘a new politics’ by choosing someone less associated with the old politics of factions and deal making that former KMT speaker Wang Jin-pyng presided over for almost two decades. Above all, Tsai’s choice of Premier will be crucial, for it is on the performance of that individual that Tsai will most often be judged. A new politics will mean moving on from past administrations comprised of academics, technocrats, and bureaucrats. If the legislature is gridlocked, Tsai will need creative, empathetic, individuals with good communication skills who can implement her policy agenda using other institutions and methods. The pathway to a second term lies in keeping her government as functional, reflexive, and reactive to public opinion as possible regardless of legislative impasse or pressure from external agents.

Secondly, Tsai should avoid getting dragged into another Fourth Nuclear Power Plant controversy — any issue that serves to divide her party caucus or positions public opinion against her new Government. For example, though she may want to scrap the death penalty, moving on this issue immediately could bog her down in domestic controversy (the death penalty is strongly supported in Taiwan) and prevent her from moving on a whole range of other policy fronts. Choosing her battles carefully will be critically important. Tsai has done well not to repeat the mistakes of Chen and Ma in making grand promises they were unable to keep. Once elected she must maintain that self-discipline and professionalism. Taiwanese are tired of ideology-driven politics. Instead, they want someone who will work hard on the less glamorous aspects of governance. Avoiding hot button topics framed to goad her into a rash response will be a daily test of character.

What can the world expect from a Tsai presidency? Tsai’s campaign indicates that she will prioritise domestic economic and social issues. The Taiwan economy is struggling with a looming global trade recession triggered by the slumping Chinese economy. President Ma’s attempts to bind the Taiwan economy to the China market has left Tsai to untangle a complex and multilayered dependency. Taiwan is now so saturated with Chinese products, legal and otherwise, that the foundations of economic security laid down in the 60s, 70s, and 80s must be rebuilt anew. She will have to do so without massive injections of US aid or a technological revolution. The old high tech/development-based model has reached its limits as well. If Tsai permits herself to become beholden to the corporate interests which helped get her predecessor elected, it is unlikely she will be able to effect substantive change in the economy.

At the same time Tsai will probably address but not obsess over challenges to her leadership from Beijing. It is almost certain that China will do everything in its power to depict her as rash, provocative, destabilising, and confrontational despite her election campaign pointedly showing the opposite. Although the US has given signs it has learned from its internalisation of Beijing’s narratives on cross-strait relations during the Chen Administration, Tsai would do well not to assume Washington will be able, or even willing, to push back against complaints about her from Zhongnanhai. In summary a Tsai presidency looks set to be economically conservative, socially progressive, and diplomatically neutral. Those looking to gleefully expose and critique Tsai as a ‘radical’ will likely face disappointment.

Tsai will defend the nation’s dignity and sovereignty but differently than Chen and Ma who, respectively, trumpeted it and diminished it. Tsai is a technocrat well versed in the language of international relations. While she will of course seek to promote Taiwan’s visibility and participation internationally, it is unlikely that she will do so in ways designed to incur China’s wrath. Instead, what we may see is China’s shrill petulance and aggression clearly delineated by its contrast with Tsai’s calm statesmanship. That should allow Washington and other countries in the region the space to build closer relations with Taiwan. Thus, Tsai’s diplomatic performance will depend on the courage of other nations to recognise her as a force for stability and consistency.

Many observers contend that China will seek to punish Tsai, perhaps withdrawing Chinese tourists, cutting Taiwanese imports, or undermining Taiwanese businesses in China. How Tsai reacts to that, and the domestic pressure constructed by the KMT to associate Tsai with failure on China and the economy, will shape not only her administration’s record but also her reputation at home and abroad.

Ben Goren is a longtime resident in Taipei and owns Letters from Taiwan