Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

It is not news that DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen is heading for victory on January 16. She has enjoyed a double digit lead across all polls throughout the year, rising to a 30 point lead at one stage. She recently crossed the psychological 50 point mark. Her rivals, Eric Chu of the KMT and James Soong of the PFP, poll far behind Tsai even when their numbers are combined.  Seasoned Taiwan watchers know to take media polls with a pinch of salt, although they were spot on in their predictions in 2012. But such is the consensus across all polls across the political spectrum that Tsai is a lock, barring something unforeseen. Unexpected things do happen in Taiwanese elections. In 2000, the then-independent Soong was ahead in the polls until the KMT broke a huge corruption scandal about him. Chen Shui-bian sustained gunshot wounds while campaigning on the eve of his re-election in 2004, which may have swung the vote in his favour. More recently, no one foresaw that Ma Ying-jeou would have a face to face meeting with Xi Jinping. If the latter surprise was intended to give the KMT’s election chances a boost, it didn’t work, despite the appealing optics of “the handshake” for the world’s media and the boost it might provide perceptions of Ma’s “legacy” outside of Taiwan (where it was greeted with anger or apathy).

The 2016 presidential election is all about Ma and the KMT. It is less about China per se, and Tsai’s big lead does not necessarily reflect huge enthusiasm for the DPP. The KMT’s coming election loss reflects widespread discontent with Ma and his party, particularly the outcomes and trajectory of his economic policies. In the past seven and half years that Ma has been in power, the cost of living in Taiwan has risen 7.8%, while wages have barely moved and average disposable income increased 1.6%. In the same period, house prices have risen 45%, and the price of a Taipei home is now 16 times average annual income (it is 8.5 times in Taiwan as a whole). Taiwan’s famously even distribution of wealth has gone to the winds, and social mobility is no longer something that Taiwanese can take for granted. Education in particular is no longer the passport to mobility it once was, with an increasing proportion of graduates earning a desultory NT$22000 starting monthly salary ($650). As widespread feelings of relative deprivation have taken hold, corporations and individuals with political connections have profited from opening up Taiwan’s economy to China. Squandering their long-held reputation as stewards of the “Economic Miracle” in the 1960s and 70s, Ma and the KMT have come to represent the 1%. That Ma, a self-styled Confucian elite, has demonstrated contempt for colleagues in his own party and a personal style that combines aloofness with indecision and authoritarian decision-making, compounds the feeling that he does not serve the best interests of regular Taiwanese (regardless of their inherent political sympathies).

Ma’s China policy features here of course. Economic integration has implications for many sectors in Taiwan, including staples of everyday life like housing and jobs. Taiwanese companies have long swapped investment in Taiwan for China (61% of Taiwanese investments since 1991 have been in China), even moving out R&D operations, depressing the domestic job market. Chinese investment in real estate has caused bubbles and made housing unaffordable for ordinary Taiwanese. As in Hong Kong, an influx of Chinese tourists has exacerbated the sense of difference and antipathy towards Chinese people, and has no doubt contributed to an unequivocal trend in public opinion. During Ma’s reign, the proportion of people identifying as Taiwanese has increased from 45% to 60%, at the same time that Ma has espoused Taiwan’s commitment to being part of the imagined Chinese nation, contrary to the lived experience of Taiwanese who identify with the discrete experience of a liberal democracy. Taiwan under Ma has become over-reliant on China; one third of Taiwan’s total trade volume is with China, Hong Kong and Macau, while the PRC makes no secret of its intention to leverage this dependence. And despite the superficial entente cordiale on show in Singapore, the underlying military threat posed by China is undiminished, while Ma has flubbed professionalization of the army and steadfastly refused to increase defence spending.

China’s impact on Taiwan is inescapable, but relations with China in the abstract sense of sovereignty and future status are not the major pre-occupation for Taiwanese voters. There is huge controversy around the so called “1992 Consensus” (which is neither a consensus, since China ignores the “respective interpretations” qualifier, nor was it arrived at in 1992), and resentment at Ma’s attempts to lock Taiwan into a narrowing range of future options. Yet my sense is that Taiwanese are focused on more tangible issues. In this respect, Tsai Ing-wen has cleverly put cross-Strait relations to one side, emphasizing time and again her adherence to the “status quo”. The fact that the status quo is a nebulous concept (does it refer to one China or Taiwan’s functional autonomy?) is to everyone’s advantage. The DPP is vulnerable on China policy, and going in to too many specifics is not to the party’s advantage during the campaign. But since 90% of Taiwanese citizens over many years have evinced favour for some version of the “status quo” (“leading to independence”, “leading to unification”, “indefinitely”), it has become an “easy issue”, inoculating the DPP from attacks on its China position and helping voters set China policy to one side, for the time being at least.

Although she has rightly focused her campaign on social and economic justice, if and when Tsai becomes president, relations with China will inevitably return to prominence. Beijing views Tsai with deep suspicion, including her ability to reign in the more independence minded factions of a party they view as “secessionist”. Officially, Beijing will adopt a wait and see attitude, while preparing to put the squeeze on Taiwan in the absence of demonstrations of “sincerity” from Tsai. A major stumbling block will be the “1992 Consensus” that Ma has enthusiastically promoted as the “status quo”. Tsai, consistent with many Taiwanese, rejects the notion that an ad hoc agreement between the CCP and a then-unelected KMT should dictate democratic Taiwan’s options. As Xi Jinping has taken over Taiwan policy, marginalizing the Taiwan Affairs Office, Beijing’s position on acceptance of “one China”, even in the guise of “one China, respective interpretations”, has hardened. Absent conciliatory noises from Tsai, Beijing will go after Taiwan’s handful of diplomatic allies, increase pressure on the large community of Taiwanese businesspeople living in China and work to support the KMT and marginalize the DPP. Tsai has intimated that she will put the brakes on Ma’s rapid embrace of China, but in reality she won’t have a choice if Beijing refuses to play ball. Tsai’s plans to reduce inequality, increase provision of social housing, and raise wages are what will get her elected, but developing a framework to manage relations with China is what will make her presidency a success.

Jonathan Sullivan is Associate Professor and Director of Research in the School of contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. He tweets @jonlsullivan. A shorter version of this piece appeared in SCMP on Dec 22.