Written by Jacques deLisle.
Image credit: 總統出席2017年世界大學運動會開幕典禮 by Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)/Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0
Taiwan’s democratisation is among the most impressive of the “Third Wave” that swept the authoritarian world in the 1980s and 1990s. This process was relatively peaceful despite a history of harsh repression by the Kuomintang (KMT). Taiwan successfully consolidated its democracy, overcoming significant challenges: a presidential election in which the opposition party’s candidate won with a minority share against two candidates from a split ruling party; a subsequent re-election contest in which the incumbent eked out a razor-thin victory amid controversies over spoiled ballots and an assassination attempt; initially salient communal divisions between “Mainlanders” and “Taiwanese”; and the strains of managing relations with a regime across the Strait that poses an existential threat.
Now early in the 2020 election cycle, Taiwan shows signs of an affliction common to many seemingly well-established democracies. An incumbent seeking a second term may lose for the first time in nearly three decades of democratic presidential elections. Voters dissatisfied with government performance, establishment politicians and established institutions, are looking at highly unconventional, non-traditional candidates. Among the early contenders for the presidency are: Terry Gou, the tycoon and political neophyte who founded the formidable electronics giant FoxConn/Hon Hai; Han Kuo-yu, a nominally Kuomintang candidate with an avowedly anti-establishment populist agenda who won the election for mayor in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) stronghold of Kaohsiung; and Ko Wen-je, former trauma and transplant surgeon at Taiwan’s most prominent hospital, elected Mayor of Taipei in 2014 and 2018, after running as an iconoclastic and anti-establishment non-Party candidate, and whose once-friendly relationship with the DPP soured considerably during his first term. Han and Gou are leading contenders in the KMT candidate selection process, while Ko is mulling over running as an independent. The much more conventional incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen faced a significant, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, challenge from the fundamentalist wing of the DPP in the form of her former Premier Lai Ching-te, who described himself as a “political worker for Taiwan independence.”
None of this is shocking or even novel in a world where Donald Trump is the US President and the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders has twice been a presidential primary top-tier candidate, Emmanuel Macron is President of France, the Five Star Movement has become a potent force in Italy, and the UK’s ruling Conservative Party seems poised to choose flamboyant Brexit-backer Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Attempts to explain the appeal of Gou, Han, and Ko in part echo assessments of the success of non-traditional and insurgent candidates in other democracies: frustration with weak and maldistributed economic gains, perceptions of professional politicians as out of touch and indifferent to the concerns of “ordinary” citizens, beliefs that elite-backed international economic integration is responsible for middle and working class loss of opportunity at home, sentiments that government has become generally dysfunctional, and so on.
The shift in Taiwan’s politics may not be so dramatic. Many established democracies continue to be led by experienced politicians from long-standing parties. Although Tsai faces anaemic approval ratings, a persistent cold shoulder from Beijing, a sluggish economy, limited success in enacting ambitious economic and social reforms despite a legislative majority, and stinging losses for the DPP in 2018 municipal elections, she has a solid chance of replicating her three predecessors’ successful re-election bids. The KMT nomination may go to a traditional candidate like former Xinbei mayor and 2016 standard-bearer Eric Chu. A seemingly out-of-the-box nominee like Han Kuo-yu — who was a member of the Legislative Yuan for nearly a decade in the 1990s — might revert toward KMT norms during the campaign or upon taking office.
If voters choose a president with little political experience and much disdain for politics-as-usual, it will be a sharp break with the past. Given Taiwan’s fragile position in the world, the risks that come with a leader who is impatient with the constraints of conventional wisdom, established policies, and traditional politics are especially great. Taiwan’s presidents have negotiated a complex and fraught international environment. Over the last three decades, they have sought state-like standing to enhance security against China’s efforts to marginalise Taiwan, while avoiding transgressing Beijing’s uncertain and shifting redlines of “pro-independence” or “anti-secession,” and imperilling Washington’s indispensable support. They have pursued closer economic ties and peaceful, stable relations with the Mainland, while guarding against becoming fatally vulnerable to Beijing’s economic leverage.
Taiwan’s well-seasoned and largely conventional presidents have run into trouble on these fronts. When Lee Teng-hui delivered a speech at his American alma mater, his touting of Taiwan’s democracy to enhance Taiwan’s status provoked hostility from Beijing and criticism in the US of the Clinton administration for inviting Lee. When Chen Shui-bian tested Beijing’s limits, he twice drew worrisome rebukes from Washington. In 2003, when Chen proffered referenda (a mechanism long associated with Taiwan independence) calling on Beijing to withdraw missiles and renounce the use of force against Taiwan, George W. Bush said in a conversation with PRC Premier Wen Jiabao that Chen appeared to be trying to unilaterally change the US-favoured cross-Strait status quo. In 2008 a Chen-backed referendum on pursuit of membership in the United Nations under the name “Taiwan” led a senior US official to criticise Taiwan’s use of democratic processes in ways that threatened US national interests.
The rapid progress of cross-Strait rapprochement under Ma Ying-jeou briefly prompted a previously unthinkable prospect: the US-Taiwan security relationship might need to be re-evaluated and downgraded. During her unsuccessful 2012 presidential bid, Tsai’s positions on cross-Strait policy struck some in Washington as so unsettling that an anonymous senior Obama administration source told the Financial Times that Tsai had sown “doubts” about whether she was “willing and able” to continue stable cross-Strait relations. The overall impression among observers was that Washington supported Ma’s re-election because of concerns about what a Tsai win might mean for US-PRC-Taiwan relations.
Chances are high that a Ko, Han, or Gou presidency would not steer clear of such troubles. Ko alienated DPP supporters who once backed him when he declared that “both sides” of the Strait are “one family,” and when he later suggested Taiwan should be silent on Xi Jinping’s January 2019 statement reemphasising the “one country, two systems” model for Taiwan. He also declared that the 1992 Consensus — embraced by the KMT, insisted upon by Beijing, rejected by the DPP, and long a central issue in cross-Strait relations — was something no one side could explain. Ko’s remarks during a 2019 visit to Washington calling for a policy of wisdom and strength toward Beijing and setting forth five “mutual principles” to guide cross-Strait relations drew criticism for being vague. More than any of Taiwan’s democratic-era presidents, Gou and Han have raised worries that they will be insufficiently wary or adept in engaging Beijing. Concerns about Gou stem from his business interests on the Mainland, close ties with PRC leaders, calls for Taiwan to avoid “choosing sides” in the deepening US-PRC disputes, and his mangling of KMT orthodoxy in discussing the 1992 Consensus, which he characterised as a “two China” principle in the sense of “differing interpretations” of “one China.” Doubts about Han focus on his emphasis on further opening Taiwan’s economy to China, his symbolically charged meetings with the PRC officials who handle Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan affairs, and his penchant for Trumpian unscripted remarks that are colourful, offensive and imprecise.
Whoever holds the presidency in Taiwan after 20 May 2020 will need to navigate especially challenging relations with Washington and Beijing. Under Xi, Beijing has taken a tougher line, squeezing Taiwan’s international space, poaching its diplomatic partners, and chilling cross-Strait ties. It is not clear that China’s more demanding and assertive posture stems solely from dissatisfaction with Tsai, whose cross-Strait policy has emphasised stability and continuity. US policy — long anchored in the safe harbour of the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Communiqués, and the Six Assurances — has become disconcertingly unmoored since President Tsai’s phone call with then-President-elect Trump and Congress’s passing of legislation to enhance US-Taiwan relations. While US support for Taiwan has remained stable and strong despite Trump-era perturbations, other more fundamental forces are potentially unsettling, including a sharply deteriorating US-China relationship and a relative decline in Washington’s clout in East Asia.
Jacques deLisle is the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law, professor of political science, and director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.