Written by John F. Copper.
Image credit: Taiwan’s 14th-term President Tsai Ing-wen delivers her inaugural speech by Office of the President, Republic of China/Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0
On June 13, 2019, Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) announced the results of its just held primary “election” to select the party’s nominee to run in the January 2020 presidential election. The two contenders were President Tsai Ing-wen and former premier Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai.
Tsai won. She got 35.68 percent of the vote. Lai won 24.48 percent. Both the result and the numbers surprised many observers. Some said the primary was rigged for Tsai. Others argued that it was not and that it was fair. What are the facts?
After the November 2018 mid-term election, party leaders like many others blamed President Tsai for the party’s trouncing. Her poll numbers recorded in numerous public opinion surveys leading up to the election reflected that voters were disappointed with her handling the economy, reforms and much more — including relations with China. Her favourability numbers were way below Lai’s.
After the defeat, Tsai admitted fault and pivoted to a much harder stance on relations with China to accord with the views of the party base. This would help her compete with Lai who was much stronger advocate of Taiwan’s independence and who even supported establishing a Republic of Taiwan — anathema to China and the United States. Tsai’s reputation with the party leaders and to a considerable extent with the party faithful quickly improved. Two issues in particular succoured President Tsai to build support for her candidacy.
One was China’s President Xi Jinping’s speech in January promoting the “one country, two systems” formula for bringing Taiwan into the fold. This did not sit well with Taiwan’s residents, especially DPP members and those that sympathized with the DPP on the issue. Subsequent polls taken in Taiwan clearly showed that.
The second was an opposition movement in Hong Kong generated by an extradition bill allowing China to transfer suspected criminals out of Hong Kong to other parts of China for trial. The anti-extradition movement gained steam in March and April with more than one hundred thousand people gathering on the streets to protest. It then spread to other cites around the world. By early June the numbers in Hong Kong reached a million or more.
President Tsai stated and repeated at almost every opportunity that, “As long as I am President, one country, two systems will never be an option.” She also declared, “We stand with all freedom-loving people in Hong Kong and are reminded that Taiwan’s hard-earned democracy must be guarded and renewed by every generation.”
In January, according to the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation poll, President Tsai’s approval rating climbed by 10 percentage points to 34.5 percent after she rejected President Xi’s call for unification. Shortly after this the monthly Global Magazine reported Tsai’s approval rate increased by 13.3 percent.
At that juncture, the DPP elected a new party chairman. Cho Jung-tai, a former cabinet secretary general, won. He was a supporter of President Tsai. He and the top leadership of the party subsequently worked diligently to help Tsai win the primary. In May, according to a Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation poll, President Tsai’s approval number jumped again by 8.6 points to 43.1 percent. This, her supporters explained, was why she subsequently won the primary vote.
However, some party veterans as well as rank and file members questioned the fairness of the process. So did outside observers. Some party leaders worried out loud that a lack of integrity in the way the primary contest was handled might influence voters and might even “mean the death of the party.” Taiwan Independence Movement spokespersons said Tsai had used the party to beat down her challenger. They called the party leadership that abetted Tsai a “nest of thieves.” Some pro-independence groups even declared they would “take to the streets to protest.”
The chairman of the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, You Ying-lung, said the polls were not an accurate reflection of the public’s feelings, calling them the “strangest polls in history.” He questioned whether they should be believed. Former President Chen Shui-bian averred the polls had been tampered with. Popular Taipei city mayor Ko Wen-je said, “Lai had been done away with.”
In a weekly column for Storm Media, commentator Sun Ching-yu cynically called Tsai’s win a “miracle.” He claimed Lai had been ahead of Tsai in almost every public opinion survey before the election and that it was “unbelievable” she could have beaten Lai. He added that the KMT would be happy with the results “because Tsai will be a weaker opponent.”
The fact the DPP leadership spent 86 days “fixing” the primary process and there were frequent delays while the rules were changed (to weigh cell calls, which had never been used before) heavy in the voting and also polls that pitted Tsai and Lai against two non-DPP competitors instead of against each other. This helped President Tsai. The party leadership clearly wanted her to win.
After the primarily election was over, the Liberty Times and its English-language affiliate, theTaipei Times, that are supporters of the DPP’s leadership, carried articles applauding the process. They called it a “victory for Taiwan.” Both carried articles citing polls showing Tsai would beat any of the KMT’s likely candidates in January.
Another variable in the mix were reports in the foreign media that the United States favored Tsai. Some Washington, DC pundits that sounded off at the time seemed to confirm this. Ted Carpenter, the China expert at the Cato Foundation, stated that Lai reminded Americans of President Chen Shui-bian that had been the Bush administration’s nemesis for allegedly wanting to provoke the US into a war with China. Douglas Paal, a former State Department officer, member of the National Security Council and head of the American Institute in Taiwan (2002-06), shortly before the DPP’s primary voting stated he favoured President Tsai. So did Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a frequent commentator on China and Taiwan affairs.
Returning to the issue of the fairness of the DPP’s primary…
Taiwan specialists regularly say that its opinion surveys are slanted and/or are manipulated and many are fakes. However, generally trusted are the polls conducted by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University in cooperation with the Asian Studies Center at Duke University in the United States.
Dennis Hickey, Distinguished Professor in political science at Missouri State University, noted their polls using a methodology long scrutinized by scholars and conducted over the last twelve years, showed in January 2019 only 6 percent of respondents believed they were better off economically (while 28 percent say they were worse off and 65 percent say they are the same). A majority (65 percent) favor strengthening trade and other economic relations with China, which did not accord with President Tsai’s more hostile mien toward China. A majority (57 percent) supported conducting relations with China on the basis of the 1992 consensus or one-China different interpretations that President Tsai opposed.
Also, Tsai’s performance overall was 24 percent favourable, with dissatisfaction rising from 57 percent to 66 percent. Support for the KMT rose from 21 percent in 2017 to 28 percent in 2019 while the DPP’s fell from 20 percent to 18 percent. The most preferred presidential hopefuls in Taiwan according to the poll were Ko Wen-je (38.7 percent) followed by Eric Chu (21.5 percent) and Tsai Ing-wen (15.3 percent).
Further, according to these polls, 70 percent said they felt there was no need to declare independence (since Taiwan was already independent) and 50 percent thought China would attack if Taiwan declared independence as opposed to 41 percent recorded in like polls taken in 2017. In the event of a war with China, 70 percent believed Taiwan’s military couldn’t win. However, the number of people that believed the United States would commit troops to help Taiwan in the event of an attack by China increased to 48.5 percent while the number that didn’t think so fell to 35.3 percent (compared to 43.4 percent who thought the U.S. would not support Taiwan in 2017 and 40.5 percent that thought it would).
Could it be that President Tsai’s favourable image improved so dramatically from January to June? It is hard to believe that it did.
Did the DPP leadership manipulate the polls to favour President Tsai? That seems so. Taiwan had never experienced a standing president being challenged in a primary election for a party’s nomination. It would have been traumatic for the party if William Lai had been chosen. Also, his nomination would have imperiled relations with China and the United States. Independence, DPP leaders knew, was not going to be a winning issue in January. The party’s actions thus may have been justified.
Will this hurt Taiwan’s image as a democracy? It could. But would it be long remembered? Probably not. The election in January will be an event that overshadows this.
Is it accurate to say that the US position on the nomination was critical? Likely. The US matters to Taiwan. Taiwan cannot survive without America’s support and Washington opposes Taiwan’s independence. Does it mean Washington supports President Tsai to win the 2020 election? It doesn’t seem so. In May, President Trump met with Terry Gou, Chairman of Foxconn and Taiwan’s richest person, who was a contender for the KMT’s presidential nominee. With Foxconn investing billions in a Wisconsin plant, President Trump praised Gou. Also the two seemed to have established a close friendship.
In other words, with the ruling DPP’s presidential candidate decided, even though there are doubts about the process, who will win Taiwan’s 2020 election is still an open question.
John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies (emeritus) at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of more than thirty books on China, Taiwan and US Asia policy. This article was originally published by Taiwan Sentinel and can be found here.