Old Rivalries, New Problems in Taiwan's Presidential Election

This Saturday, Taiwan will hold a direct general election for the office of president of the Republic of China (ROC). The vast majority of Taiwanese political pundits and observers from abroad fully expect the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen to win comfortably, a position supported by Tsai's domination of opinion polls for months. So dominant has she been throughout this campaign in fact that the rival Kuomintang (KMT) party switched candidates only a couple of months ago, albeit after a series of ill-considered comments by their original choice, Hung Hsiu-chu. The situation reflects a complete turnaround from the apparent paths open to both parties since the election in 2008 of Ma Ying-jeou, the outgoing president. In 2008, Ma represented a vibrant future for the KMT after eight years of DPP president Chen Shui-bian; young, handsome and charismatic, Ma transitioned his popular mayoralty of Taiwanese capital Taipei into a compelling alternative to Chen's increasingly scandal-riddled presidency. Eight years later Ma and his party are again unpopular with the electorate, and in particular, face a struggle building fresh connections with young voters.

The Taiwanese are fans of the democratic process. Turnout for parliamentary and presidential elections has been extremely high since the first direct presidential election in 1996, with three quarters of the voting age population consistently coming out to vote. The process has been dominated from its inception, as so many other issues in Taiwan are, by the island's relationship with mainland China. In 1996, the communist government in Beijing fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in an attempt to dissuade Taiwanese voters from electing Lee Teng-hui, a man whose promotion of the idea of "Taiwanization" infuriated politicians in Beijing who maintain Taiwan is a renegade province and not distinguishable in any meaningful way from the mainland either culturally, socially or politically. The tension between further accelerating Taiwanese celebration of its difference and glossing over such distinctions in favor of closer ties to the mainland remains at the heart of Taiwanese politics and largely informs Tsai's upcoming victory.

The KMT claims as its antecedence a number of organizations founded by Sun Yat-sen, widely regarded across the Taiwan Strait as the father of the modern Chinese nation; the party as a result sees itself as irrevocably linked to the declaration of the ROC on the 1st of January, 1912 and the decades of intermittent governance of China that followed. In truth the KMT maintained coherent rule of the majority of Chinese territory for a relatively brief period from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's unifying "Northern Expedition" in 1927 until the Japanese invasion of the mainland in 1937. Soon after World War II the fragile alliance between the KMT and Mao Zedong's communists formed to fight off the Japanese collapsed, and the ensuing civil war did not go well for Chiang and his followers. Taiwan provided an island refuge, the final stop in a series of retreats that ended with a recalcitrant Chiang utilizing martial law to position Taiwan as an entrenched front in the Cold War. In the decades that immediately followed 1949, Taiwan emerged as one of Asia's "tiger economies" and a staunch ally of the western world in stark contrast to Mao's China, which sought alternative paths to modernization that mostly resulted in tragedy for millions of Chinese.

Much has changed since the deaths of Chiang in 1975 and Mao in 1976. Loose conglomerations of Taiwanese political opposition groups in the 1980s grew into a more coherent political movement in favor of democratization of the island, leading ultimately to Lee's direct election in 1996. This brought about a significant change in Taiwanese politics: a somewhat surprising victory for the DPP in 2000 saw a more assertive voice for Taiwanese independence take shape, with some DPP supporters now openly arguing not only for the promotion of cultural and ideological independence but for steps towards formal declarations of an independent state. Such a move would likely be disastrous; the complex geopolitics surrounding Taiwan rest on common assumptions of a status quo (the "One China" concept) held with varying degrees of enthusiasm in Beijing, Taiwan and Washington.

Frustration over Ma's failure to deliver on promises of a revived economy and increasing belligerence in foreign policy promoted in Beijing is driving a wave of support for Tsai and the DPP. Tsai's probable victory is unlikely to bring about an immediate crisis in East Asia; she has been careful to maintain a moderate stance on her approach to governing Taiwan, focusing on issues of public faith in government rather than a push for independence. We are unlikely to see a Taiwanese declaration of independence in 2016, or in 2020 for that matter. Attempts by China to influence the election appear to remain limited to Xi Jinping's meeting with Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore this past November, a historic moment but one that appears to have had little effect on Taiwanese voters. That meeting and the long, sometimes arduous handshake it entailed represented a lonely high point in a tough couple of years for Ma, whose skillful handling of the world's press in a free-flowing press conference following the private meeting between the two men stood in stark contrast to a stage-managed effort by the Chinese which Xi chose not to attend. Chinese television went so far as to digitally block out the ROC flag pin Ma wears on his lapel. Somewhat lost in the discussion is the fact that Taiwan will once again hold a free and transparent general election putting in power a president and parliamentary legislators who will enjoy the mandate of a popular vote. It is perhaps this fact, rather than the currently relatively remote possibility of an ill-considered declaration of formal independence by Taipei, that should concern Xi.