Written by Bruce Jacobs.
Polls strongly suggest that Taiwan’s vibrant democracy will have its third change of government in 16 years when elections are held on 16 January. The first change of government took place in 2000 when the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidency against the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), which had split before the election. The second occurred in 2008 when President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT won a landslide victory.
Yet, despite winning re-election in 2012 with a reduced majority, the Ma government has garnered remarkably low approval ratings. Its many domestic political errors and poorly conceived policies toward China have worried Taiwan’s citizens.
The KMT suffered a stunning setback at the polls in the local elections of November 2014. As a result, Ma resigned as Chairman of the KMT and Eric Chu, mayor of New Taipei, took his place. At the time pundits agreed that the KMT would lose the presidency unless it undertook meaningful reforms.
In the absence of reform, the KMT, and its presidential campaign, has become a shambles. As they expected to lose, none of the KMT heavyweights were willing to run for the presidency. Hung Hsiu-chu, the deputy parliamentary speaker, announced her candidacy and was nominated. But Hung’s campaign proved disastrous, due in no small part to her unilateral announcement of a pro-China policy that even KMT conservatives found intolerable. KMT legislative candidates felt they could not win with Hung as presidential nominee and she was removed after some delay.
Eric Chu then became the KMT presidential candidate. To his detriment, Chu picked a poor vice-presidential candidate, Jennifer Wang, who had privately purchased military housing as an investment and sued workers as Council of Labor Affairs minister. Her apologies fell on deaf ears and Chu’s campaign declined, diminished further by his unpopular policies towards China. Chu is now competing with the third candidate, James Soong, to see who will take last place in the race.
Meanwhile, DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen has greatly improved from her relatively poor showing in 2012. Back then she appeared naïve and failed to attract voters. Now, she listens to a much wider group of advisers and has become a sophisticated and well-liked political figure. In a three-way race, Tsai will probably attract close to 50 per cent of the vote, and possibly even more.
In the simultaneous legislative election, the DPP will likely win an absolute majority of seats for the first time. As a result, they will not need to rely on friendly legislators from minor parties. This would facilitate a much smoother path for a new DPP government.
There will naturally be competition for leading positions, but Tsai has demonstrated her ability to think carefully and strategically about appointments. Her choice of running mate, Chen Chien-jen — a public health specialist and former vice president of Taiwan’s premier research institution, Academia Sinica — has been widely praised.
The question of relations with mainland China featured heavily in the two televised presidential debates. The vast majority of Taiwanese citizens are more than happy to have good relations with China. But most Taiwanese oppose China’s claims that Taiwan belongs to it. And China continues to threaten Taiwan militarily, with approximately 1500 missiles currently targeting the country.
Whether relations between China and Taiwan can continue as they are, or even improve, depends on China’s attitude. If China is not hostile, relations could be excellent. But if China continues to threaten Taiwan, relations will not improve.
President Ma’s government has insisted that the so-called ‘1992 Consensus’ — the alleged agreement in 1992 that there is ‘one China’, with the mainland and Taiwan each having their own interpretation — is the basis of China–Taiwan relations. The controversial phrase has only been in use since 2000 when Su Chi, a KMT official, invented the term. China, which had hitherto rejected the ’92 consensus’, agreed to it as a basis for cross-Strait relations only in 2005 during a visit from then KMT chairman Lien Chan.
President Ma and KMT candidate Eric Chu have repeatedly emphasised the importance of the 1992 Consensus. Yet Tsai has replied that there was and is no such consensus and she notes that Taiwan and China have negotiated without any agreed consensus prior to 2005. She has argued instead for a continuation of the status quo. China’s leaders will have to accommodate this stance if her administration comes to office as expected.
President Ma’s China plans have fallen apart. His Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, signed with China in 2010, has not produced the forecast economic prosperity. Ma’s attempt to pass the poorly planned Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement failed due to the government’s refusal to answer simple questions about the agreement. The inadequacies of the Ma government in initial negotiations are one important reason for the KMT’s decline.
For Taiwan’s government, several possibilities lie ahead. Either the KMT will revitalise itself with new leadership, or it will fade from history, to be replaced by a fresh, more Taiwan-centric opposition. Time will tell whether an incoming Tsai government will meet the challenges facing Taiwan. For now, it is clear that for many Taiwanese citizens, only the DPP offers solutions to the economic and security problems facing Taiwan.
J Bruce Jacobs is Emeritus Professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University. This article was first published on the East Asia Forum and can be found here.