Unexpected Scenarios and Unpredictable Outcome? A discussion of Taiwan’s 2020 Presidential Election

Written by Mei-chuan Wei.

Image credit: 總統出席角宿天后宮 by Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)/Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0

In an unprecedented moment in the history of Taiwan’s presidential elections, incumbent president, Tsai Ing-wen, was challenged by her former Premier, Lai Ching-teh in the party’s primary election. Lai stepped down in the aftermath of the DPP’s landslide defeat by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) in the November 2018 local elections. The chance for Lai and Tsai to run together as the DPP ticket at the upcoming presidential election is next to zero as both appear determined to compete for the party’s candidacy. The circumstances of the KMT’s primary is also unprecedented. Five members have thrown their hat in the ring – a larger number of KMT candidates than in any previous election. Surprisingly, former speaker of the Legislative Yuan Wang Jin-ping decided to bow out from the KMT’s primary shortly after meeting with the party’s delegates. Wang had previously expressed his intention to run for president. Moreover, of the five candidates for KMT nomination, the two leading the polls – Han Kuo-yu and Terry Guo Tai-ming – are the least politically experienced. Han did not return to the centre of politics until running for the Mayor of Kaohsiung City last November; Guo is a billionaire and chairman of the Foxconn Corporation. Both Han and Guo are currently the principal presidential hopefuls.

Scholarly and public discussion in the recent local elections and current presidential campaigns are focused on populism and national security. Han’s unexpected popularity, dubbed in media the ‘Han Wave’, are of particular attention. Populism ,as examined and discussed in recently published books such as Cultural Backlash (Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, 2019), How Democracies Die (Steven Lvitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, 2018) and What is Populism? (Jan-Werner Müller, 2016), is characterised by antielitism and antipluralism and widely considered to be a global phenomenon which threatens established democratic institutions. When applied in the Taiwanese political context, it refers to the antielitist rhetoric of Han’s campaign in which the notion of ‘the common people (庶民/ shumin)’ is opposed to that of ‘the privileged people (權貴/ chuankuai)’. This rhetoric is appealing to many in Taiwan who feel they have not benefited from economic growth, which has been emphasized by the government to be one of its important achievements since Tsai took power three years ago. The other achievement Tsai has stressed is the recent legalisation of same sex marriage, the first in Asia.

The rhetoric of ‘common people vs. privileged people’ has also been used in the KMT’s primary for expressing the resentment shared by local political leaders. Local leaders are crucial to Taiwan’s political patronage system and to mobilising supporters from rural areas. Former president and KMT chairman Ma Ying-jeou is regarded by many local leaders as symbolizing KMT elitism, so when he aimed to reform this patronage system, his policy was taken as an attempt to undermine local factions and their social bases. KMT resentment against political elites also functions in the election campaign against the DPP, but for different reasons. The DPP when in power have tried to court KMT local political leaders as allies. Despite limited success, the DPP was criticised for ignoring certain local political leaders’ criminal backgrounds. In the end, the DPP contemplated abolishing elections for township heads and councils to end local political factions altogether. Such an action threatens not just leaders of local political factions but also the existence of their factions.

Aside from populism, national security is another focus of campaign discussion. National security and national identity have always been central to Taiwan’s politics due to the fact that Taiwan enjoys de facto but not de jure sovereignty in the international community. Contestation between Chinese and Taiwanese nationalisms, cross-strait relations and the threat of military invasion have always occupied the centre of Taiwan’s presidential elections. The US-China ‘new economic cold war’, set against the background of the rise of China and its ambition to compete with the US for global dominance, has complicated cross-strait relations and Taiwan’s position in the Asia-Pacific region. As warned in the book Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia (Clive Hamilton, 2018), Beijing’s strategy of ‘reaching into the island, the households and the minds of Taiwanese people (入島、入戶、入心/ rudao, ruhu, ruhsin),’ can be observed influencing Taiwan’s grassroots through farmers, fishers, and worshipers.

Realising that verbal intimidation and saber-rattling seemed to be counterproductive as a means to inhibit DPP electoral success, Beijing has decided to utilise economic incentives to win Taiwanese hearts. Key to China’s influence in Taiwan are ‘local collaborators’, primarily media corporations and politicians. Han’s unexpected victory in Kaohsiung, a former DPP stronghold, was said by many commentators to have partly been secured by both Beijing’s promise to purchase agricultural and fishery products, and by positive coverage from pro-Beijing media. Taiwan’s local political patronage system is thus linked to the issue of national security, working jointly to influence elections. Specifically, political leaders of local factions, through ‘working with’ Beijing to promise procurement of agricultural and fishery products, aim to secure the support of their traditional constituencies and bargain with the KMT elitists. The success of Han in Kaohsiung encourages local political leaders as well as Beijing to make Han the most promising KMT candidate for the 2020 election.

The influence of Beijing, local political leaders and pro-Beijing media through their alleged collaborations over the 2019 local elections are obvious and expected to continue into the 2020 presidential election. Nevertheless, the causes of the ruling DPP’s landslide defeat include: existing, if not exacerbating, socioeconomic inequity; DPP pension reforms inciting resentment from retiring public officials and military personnel; new labour laws providing one fixed and one flexible day off per week that pleased very few, be they wage labourers or businesses; and the alleged corruptions of some local governments administered by the DPP.

Given the unexpected scenarios in the KMT and DPP primary elections and the aforementioned complex factors that have always impacted upon Taiwan’s politics, the outcome of Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election is uncertain. Another uncertain element is Taipei City Mayor and former doctor at the prestigious National Taiwan University Hospital, Ko Wen-je. Ko is politically inexperienced compared to establishment politicians, enjoys enormous popularity with young people, and could yet run for election as an independent candidate claiming to represent the ‘Third Forces.’

In the 2020 presidential campaign, Tsai has emphasized her competence in safeguarding Taiwan, that is, dealing with national security and enhancing Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with the US. Tsai has also emphasized her contribution to urging her comrades in the Legislative Yuan to legalise same sex marriage, thus pushing Taiwan’s democracy and human rights protections one step further. The KMT, as exemplified by preliminary policy platforms put forward by Han and Guo, has addressed the importance of economic growth and cross-strait relations. As former Secretary General of the National Security Council and International Relations Professor Su Chih said in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, for whoever is elected president of Taiwan awaits an extremely daunting task. The formidable domestic and external challenges for the new leader of Taiwan and for the country as a whole will continue.

Mei-chuan Wei is Associate Professor at Graduate Institute of Development Studies and the Director of International Master’s Programme in Asia-Pacific Studies, College of Social Sciences, National Chengchi University, Taiwan.

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