Written by Dongtao Qi.
Image credit: President Tsai arrives in Paraguay by Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
Since the DPP was trounced by the KMT in the November 2018 nine-in-one local elections, most public opinion polls found that compared to other possible presidential candidates, popular support for president Tsai in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election was consistently the lowest. However, about six months before the 2020 presidential election, many polls showed a surprising turn: Tsai’s popularity had significantly risen to the leading position. How should we understand Tsai’s rising popularity? Will she win re-election in 2020?
Since the local elections Tsai and her administration have undergone several important changes which might have helped boost her popularity. While Tsai’s administration pushed through some highly controversial reforms before the local elections, it has since stopped launching similar reforms. These reforms were the major cause underlying widespread social discontent which had led to the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) local election debacle. There are several examples: pension reform which greatly hurt the interests of the military, government and education sectors’ retirees; the twice-amended Labour Standards Act which appeased neither employers nor employees; legalising same-sex marriage which was criticised by both conservative and liberal camps for compromising too much, etc. In contrast, during the past seven months after the local elections, the Tsai administration has stopped promoting highly controversial reforms and so has received far less public protest. In hindsight we can see that Tsai’s strategy is to finish the most controversial reforms before the local elections so that she will have an easier re-election year. Tsai’s rising popularity seems to suggest that her strategy is working.
Another change is Tsai herself. She has successfully improved her public image as a firm and able defender of Taiwan’s democracy in the face of China’s rising threats. After the local elections, the DPP’s key hope for the presidential election is to mobilise and convert society’s anti-Beijing sentiment into votes for the DPP in 2020. Tsai and her administration raised public awareness about various negative influences imposed by China on Taiwan and passed a series of bills to protect Taiwan’s national security from China’s threats. Externally, Xi Jinping’s January speech on Taiwan and Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests in June and July provided golden opportunities for Tsai to improve her popularity by publicly showing her prompt and firm rejection of the “One Country, Two Systems” model.
The impact of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests on Taiwan has been unexpectedly profound and has contributed to the further rise of Tsai’s popularity. Xi hoped his January speech on Taiwan would promote Taiwanese identification with China by emphasising historical, cultural, economic and social connections and proposing moderate paths for peaceful reunification. However Tsai’s response framed this as a threat of implementing One Country Two Systems, which is unacceptable to most Taiwanese. Her prompt and definite position on this important issue helped her win back many supporters lost by the DPP in the local elections. Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests confirmed the public’s impression and further justified Tsai’s position that the One Country Two Systems model does not work for Hong Kong and will not work for Taiwan either.
Before the protests, Tsai’s popularity consistently ranked third or fourth among presidential candidates in most public opinion polls; after the 9 June protest, her popularity soared and topped all five polls conducted for the DPP presidential primary between 10 and 12 June. After the protests, all the major politicians, including the most pro-Beijing presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, slammed One Country Two Systems at public gatherings. Various social groups also organised demonstrations in several cities across Taiwan to support the Hong Kong protests. Evidently, the protests have made it harder for the Chinese government to sell One Country Two Systems to Taiwan and have further boosted Tsai’s popularity.
To some extent, Tsai’s strategy for re-election is similar to former president Chen Shui-bian’s in 2002 when he became more confrontational against Beijing to boost popular support for his 2004 re-election. Chen’s victory in the re-election may be largely attributed to his success in mobilising Taiwanese nationalism. Tsai is trying to do the same, though in more moderate ways. A recent public opinion poll showed that Taiwanese nationalism has stopped declining and started rising substantially, suggesting that Tsai has effectively pushed public sentiment in favour of the DPP.
Tsai enjoys a unique external advantage that Chen did not: Washington’s increasing support for Taiwan. Since Chen adopted the confrontational strategy against Beijing in 2002, Washington tried very hard to press him to withdraw by publicly showing less support for Chen. This was due to Washington’s strategic cooperation with China to fight terrorism after the September 11 attacks in 2001. In stark contrast, since 2018 Washington’s containment strategy has raised Taiwan’s strategic value to the US anti-Beijing consensus. Congress has unanimously and rapidly passed three pro-Taiwan bills and US-Taiwan exchanges in many fields have grown visibly. The escalating US-China tensions are helping Taipei not only politically, but also economically: some Taiwanese investment in China has returned to Taiwan and Taiwan’s exports to the US have increased consecutively. Understandably, these new developments have also contributed to Tsai’s rising popularity.
Uncertainty in the DPP’s two rival camps, the Kuomingtang (KMT) and Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, has also contributed to rising popular support for Tsai. The KMT is fully occupied by an unusual primary: the two major candidates, Han Kuo-yu and Terry Gou, are both unconventional KMT politicians. Despite repeated calls for solidarity by the KMT chairman Wu Den-yi, the public still feels tensions between these candidates. By fighting with each other in the primary, their attack on Tsai may become uncoordinated and less powerful. If Ko Wen-je joins the election, he will be a highly competitive presidential candidate. He has enjoyed much stronger support among the youth, who were Tsai’s strongest supporters in the 2016 presidential elections. Generally, he shares more supporters with the DPP than with the KMT. But because he has not made up his mind whether to run for the election, these supporters might prefer Tsai. In contrast, Tsai has won the DPP’s primary through effectively mobilising supporters. As the first official and promising presidential candidate, her popularity is enjoying some first-runner advantage.
Despite these favourable developments, it is too early to tell whether Tsai can maintain the rising trend of her popularity as new factors may later influence the election. After the KMT chooses its most popular presidential candidate in mid-July, Tsai will face more substantive attacks from the hopefully consolidated KMT. On the other hand, if the Beijing-friendly Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je joins the election, he might be able to constrain anti-Beijing sentiment and win over more DPP supporters. Moreover, the youth, who are mostly independent voters, have become increasingly disappointed with Tsai since 2016 and may switch their support to their favourite politician Ko if he joins the election. The rising anti-Beijing sentiment will surely help Tsai win over many young voters’ hearts, but maintaining or further promoting nationalistic sentiment in the remaining six months before the election remains a challenge. The Chinese government has learned its lessons from past counterproductive aggressions against Taiwan during election season and will restrain itself from further provoking Taiwanese society. Protests in Hong Kong will also gradually subside. The KMT and Ko will try every way possible to divert the public’s attention from values and identity issues, such as democracy and the China threat, to bread-and-butter and interest issues, such as economy and governance. When external stimulation gradually declines and internal public concerns shift to the DPP’s disadvantaged topics, Tsai’s rising popularity may not be sustainable.
Taiwanese public opinions are very sensitive to unpredictable factors and therefore highly volatile. History indicates that Tsai will have a good chance to win re-election, just as the two previous presidents, Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou, won re-election. However, it is also likely that Taiwanese voters will surprise us again, as they did in the 2018 local elections.
Qi Dongtao is a Research Fellow in the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, and is the author of The Taiwan Independence Movement In and Out of Power (World Scientific Publishing, 2016). He is finishing a book manuscript tentatively titled Taiwan Independence Movement Returns to Power: New Developments and Challenges in an Era of Rising US-China Competition.