Written by Linda Gail Arrigo.

Tsai Ing-wen’s election landslide with 56% of the popular vote, nearly double that of the KMT’s Eric Li-luan Chu at 31%, and a sizeable majority in the national legislature to boot, is largely due to the failure of traditional KMT supporters to vote, and somewhat less due to the transmutation of Blue to Green. Voter turnout dropped from 74% in 2012 to 66% in 2016, and the Pan-Blue vote declined by almost two million. As such, Tsai’s mandate for the long run is more fragile than it appears at the moment. As has happened in South Korea and elsewhere, the ranks behind old dictatorships can regroup and reassert control, calling upon nostalgia for the old days of social stability and solid economic growth. Non-voters may reappear when united in opposition. So the wealth of the KMT, though now largely dissipated and hidden, is still a force to be reckoned with.

Tsai’s victory also represents a culmination of long-term trends within the DPP, i.e. bloodless and rational technocrats in the service of Taiwanese and international capital subsuming the passionate anti-dictatorship movements of the 1970’s and 80’s that were jointly fueled by populist demands at the grassroots. Given the challenge of the Sunflowers, the DPP can be expected to maintain a large measure of opportunistic populism, as seen in its attention to public polls and election slogans. However, there is no doubt that Tsai Ing-wen, who owes her rise under Lee Teng-hui to her role as Taiwan’s international negotiator with the WTO, will attempt to steer Taiwan towards prosperity by accommodating global economic forces, which seems to be a large part of why the mainstream electorate chose to trust her.

Consistent with this trend and the electoral strategy of appealing to the undecided light Blue voter, the DPP chose the tepid election slogan “There is no Green, there is no Blue; there is only the issue of who can deliver what the people need”. In the past this could have been a KMT slogan. It is amusing that the KMT’s candidate, Eric Chu, could only appropriate a DPP-sounding slogan, “One Taiwan – that is strength”, while serving as the standard-bearer for the “One China” party. At least he broke the mold of bland and bureaucratic Northern Chinese mainlander faces like James Soong and Ma Ying-jeou, given Chu’s lively features and past involvement in local Taoyuan KMT-brokerage politics through his native Taiwanese mother and wife.

Parallel to the DPP’s electoral strategy, in his January 19 speech at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, DPP Secretary-General Joseph Wu, who primed Tsai for her successful pilgrimage to Washington before the election, carefully downplayed any issue of disputed sovereignty – the elephant in the room – or potential for conflict with China. He insisted that the DPP won by appealing to practical voter needs. Wu, formerly a professor at conservative National Chengchi University, was long ago well aware of US global imperialism, as I can attest from personal discussions with him; as DPP rep in D.C. he meticulously pandered to US perceptions. In response to questions about the DPP’s 1991 Taiwan independence plank, Wu repeated that the plank was superseded by a 1999 central committee decision that “the ROC equals Taiwan and Taiwan equals the ROC”, a.k.a. Tsai’s promise to “maintain the status quo” with its obvious contradictions and not rock the boat.

The DPP’s rise to victory has obviously ridden on the tsunami of reaction against Ma Ying-jeou’s rush to embrace economic and political union with China on China’s terms, a reaction that was unexpectedly coalesced by the surprisingly sophisticated Sunflower student movement of March 2014, and a reaction that ushered in a victory for political neophyte Ko Wen-jhe as Taipei City mayor in November 2014. A relatively sudden rise in Taiwanese self-identity among the youth has been registered by polls, and it follows the logic of youth employment prospects being undermined by the hollowing out of Taiwan’s industrial base and flight of capital to China – though earlier this flight had also provided profits and employment opportunities.

One of the Sunflowers, New Power Party’s Huang Kuo-chang, successful in his legislative bid on the northwest side of New Taipei City, where the DPP wisely left space for new challenges to the KMT, has in private talks sworn to nip at the heels of the DPP and harry it towards Taiwan sovereignty (“We are not afraid of China”) and social justice. At least the January 2016 line-up of DPP proportional vote candidates looked pretty good in terms of social justice, with the first eight clearly from ranks of social activists and social issue experts. The November 2014 campaign of Mayor Ko that was revved up by social activists resulted in his promise to move towards local budgeting by community participation, and this has unleashed mechanisms and volunteer personnel that may get out of corporate control. On the other hand, with the cynicism of previous experience, we may remember that the DPP in power has been known to employ window dressing that had little weight in the real backroom negotiations with industry.

Therefore, Tsai Ing-wen faces serious contradictions on two fronts, one in seeking to stabilize or reverse a tidal shift towards control by Beijing, while not alarming Washington or provoking Beijing. The second contradiction is serving Taiwanese and global capital while still ameliorating the conditions of those who are squeezed under Taiwan’s polarization of incomes and prospects. Any reasonable direction of policy, such as increasing property taxes to decrease real estate speculation and make housing affordable for youth, will be fiercely resisted and could cause Tsai to struggle with her handlers, if she leans towards populism as some claim she will. On both fronts, Tsai has less international room for maneuver than her predecessor Chen Shui-bian, because of China’s looming influence and Washington’s pressures; but with the legislative majority she does have the practical means to take action. Moreover, on the bright side, for Chen there were credible suspicions that he faced the possibility of military coup, but now democratic processes seem to be sufficiently consolidated.

Here I wish to add a perspective as seen among the traditional Taiwan independence forces, one that may not be so apparent to those who celebrate Tsai’s victory as a “victory for Taiwan”. For one, the majority of ageing independence activists accepts that formal independence is not on the horizon, and will accept “Huadu” rather than “Taidu”; but there is a significant minority of independence forces that repudiates the notion that “Taiwan is the ROC”, with good reason, and may still be set on rocking the boat. Despite overall shifts towards localization of identity, the election registered a significant decline for the traditional independence forces, epitomized by the poor showing of the Taiwan Solidarity Union and the Free Taiwan Party, the latter founded on the spur of the moment by Professor Tsai Ding-gui who has spent the last eight years in an encampment in front of the Legislative Yuan, demanding a plebiscite for Taiwan. This encampment, incidentally, provided a base for the Sunflower invasion of the legislature, as did the geriatric independence front Taiwan Association of University Professors, and Tsai was honored to be indicted among about 120 Sunflowers.

But whereas the older independence activist hates the “ratchet wheel” on the national flag, the vast majority of current youth have no such consciousness of its partisan nature and see the flag as merely a rallying symbol for the Taiwanese nation. The generation gap is not likely to be closed or to facilitate a united front.

Added to this, the traditional independence activist is also said to be split between those who defend Chen Shui-bian’s innocence of corruption charges, and those who blame him for the ignominious end of DPP rule in 2008. One Free Taiwan Party legislature candidate said that independence supporters shunned the TSU and voted DPP because Lee Teng-hui and the TSU criticized and expelled Chen sympathizers. Tsai Ing-wen, relatively new to the DPP, may have managed to stay above this fray.

On the afternoon of Saturday, January 16, 2016, nearly a score of old labour and social activists gathered to watch the election results come in on a big screen television. Most had been members of the Progressive Women’s Alliance, a small organization that often formed the first row of DPP demonstrations in the 1990’s. We could reflect with satisfaction on our lives’ challenges and sacrifices as the old Kuomintang bit the dust under democratic process. It was also my 67th birthday; the table centrepiece was spaghetti and later a chocolate cake with fresh whipped cream. Then the mayor of Kaohsiung Chen Chu, old comrade since 1975 and through six years imprisonment, suddenly came through the door, sharing many hugs and camera flashes but spare on words.

A few hours later we saw Chen Chu on television, stoically standing in the cold wind with a green wool scarf wrapped around her neck, next to president-elect Tsai Ing-wen on the stage of a stupendous celebration. With crafted words, Tsai eschewed provocation by either side of the Taiwan Strait. But then Tsai’s carefully restrained poker face at least once broke into a smile when she stated, to thunderous applause, that her given mission is to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty. There may be many reverses and disappointments and betrayals in the future, as in the past, but we must savour the moment and think what it may be worth for the future.

Linda Gail Arrigo is a former professor at Taipei Medical University and a close observer of the opposition movement under one party rule.