Written by Mark Wenyi Lai.
Image credit: President Tsai exchanges gifts with Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je by Office of the President, Republic of China/Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0
The 2020 Taiwan presidential election is destined to be a big show for several reasons. First, it is not only about Taiwan. As the Sino-American trade war continues to heat up, the “Taiwan issue” is inevitably becoming another battlefield of hegemonic competition between the US and China. Second, there are many players. The incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen’s very low approval rate drew waves of challenges from all directions. The long list of presidential election contenders included two premiers, four mayors, the legislative speaker, and Taiwan’s wealthiest man. Third, it seems like no matter who wins, there will be political instability for years to come. This essay discusses this triangular political game.
In mid-2019 Tsai defeated former Premier William Lai in the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) presidential primary. The Kuomintang’s (KMT) primary is expected to nominate as presidential candidate either Terry Guo, founder and Chairman of the world’s largest cellphone manufacturer Foxconn, or Han Kuo-yu, Kaohsiung’s populist mayor. According to polls, neither DPP nor KMT holds more than 30% support for the coming presidential election. The two-party political system of the past three decades now faces a strong independent candidate in the form of Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, who could attract approximately 30% of future votes. This three-way tie in Taiwan’s first-past-the-post system could pave the way for a president that did not secure a majority vote. In other words, the next President may not have the legitimacy to form a stable administration.
Although the Constitution designed the two-party political system, there is precedent for more than two candidates contesting a presidential election. In 1996 the third and fourth candidates collected 25% of votes. In 2000 the popular independent candidate James Soong had 36.8% of votes. Soong also contested the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, collecting 2.8% and 12.8% of votes respectively. The rise of Ko signals the possibility of a new third party. In the 2014 Taipei mayoral election Ko won an overwhelming victory with 57.2% of votes. In 2018, facing the challenges from both KMT and DPP, he was re-elected with a slight margin of 0.6%. Polling history and current circumstances suggest three main implications and predictions.
First, the majority of votes in Taiwan have shifted from pan-blue to pan-green. In the past, the KMT held Taipei City as a stronghold for more than 20 years and monopolised resources necessary to field more than one electoral candidate. Now with Ko, an unprecedented scenario has emerged where the pan-green side must worry about splitting their votes. Polls show that no matter whether the KMT fields Han, Guo or Chu on the ballot, the party secures only approximately 40% of the votes. While the KMT is confident in a duel with either Tsai or Ko, it is weak in national constituents. Given that Ko is yet to enter the race and will likely submit to Tsai, and the KMT’s fiercely competitive primary will bring dire consequences for future consolidation, the KMT’s chances in the 2020 presidential election seem pessimistic.
Second, Tsai is the leading candidate and has more leverage to win the election. Since Ko was deep green prior to becoming mayor and sort revenge against the KMT, Tsai must persuade him that contesting the presidency will return the KMT to power, damage pan-green voters’ affinity with Ko and therefore terminate Ko’s political career. Ko would like to believe that through securing non-partisan supporters he can create a new kind of politics in Taiwan, ultimately becoming a new pan-green leader and marginalising the DPP. In the 2018 mayoral election when Ko’s opponent only secured 17.3% of votes, Ko enjoyed the incumbent advantage. In this upcoming presidential race, however, Tsai has the incumbent advantage. In these circumstances, it is relatively easy for pan-green voters to believe Tsai will lead the polls and therefore consolidate their votes against the KMT.
Third, there is not much that KMT can do to win the election. The front runner, Han Kuo-yu, took a strategy of siding with CCP officials, pro-unification groups, anti-pension reform retirees, anti-gay marriage organisations, and the notorious pro-China media. This strategy guaranteed his popularity and leading position in the party primary but ensures a definite defeat in the general election. Even if Terry Guo or Eric Chu win the primary, they will need to listen to these far-right political forces in the coming election season.
Ko has seized swing voters from the KMT’s pocket and pushed KMT to the far-right. The stronger this far-right narrative becomes, the greater the swing to pan-green votes. Thus, the weaker the KMT becomes, the more likely that Ko will join the race. The more Ko believes he will win, the more likely that pan-green voters will side with Tsai. Overall, Taiwan’s politics are still a green-blue electoral game, as the Ko factor has secured Tsai’s reelection. Ko has helped Tsai absorb the destructive impact of extreme pan-green factions and fostered far-right forces in the pan-blue. Without Ko, a more moderate KMT candidate would have an easier time challengeing the poor-performing DPP president.
Mark Wenyi Lai is an Associate Professor, Department of International Affairs, Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, Taiwan. He published article focusing on cross-Strait relations, American foreign policy and international political economy.