Written by John F. Copper.
This article is republished from the IPP Review. Read the original article here.
Image credit: 總統出席「角宿天后宮」贈匾儀式，與熱情的鄉親們握手致意 by the Office of the President, Republic of China/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
Historians often connect unpredictability in politics with chaos. They also suggest it signals a time of change or a turning point. In August 2019, Taiwan seemed to embody both.
In July, Taiwan’s two main political parties, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the opposition Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT), held primaries to select their presidential candidates for the coming election. President Tsai Ing-wen won for the DPP. Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu will represent the KMT. At that juncture, pundits opined that January 11, 2020 would be a seminal event or “election of all times”. They said that the prevailing issue and one that cleaves Taiwan’s soul in half is independence versus unification. Clearly the two candidates mirrored the two sides of this seeming irreconcilable difference.
Those advocating independence say that Taiwan is a nation-state, or should be, and is not a part of China or China’s possession. Those supporting unification argue that Taiwan is legally, economically or in other ways part of China. The former contends Taiwan’s sovereignty and its very existence are at stake. The latter argue it is a matter of war or peace. Recently, the opinion polls on the issue of independence and unification indicate residents’ views have not changed much even though this is the election issue and national identities have changed to favour independence. Most residents, a majority, support keeping the status quo. Does that mean supporting independence? It does if one believes Taiwan is already independent. Otherwise it doesn’t. Most say unification will eventually happen, but it could be some time.
What do the polls say about which candidate will win the election? In July, most opinion surveys predicted that President Tsai and the DPP would win. But many opinion polls done in Taiwan are unreliable and many are partisan fakes. Anyway, it is much too early to pick a winner since the election is six months away. President Tsai’s popularity as measured by the polls was a dismal 18 percent in November 2018 when her party lost a mid-term election badly and it was the general consensus it was her fault. Her winning numbers since then seem a miracle. How could she have recovered so quickly?
President Tsai’s new popularity is largely based on fear and anger of China that came after Beijing pushed its “one country, two systems” formula for unifying Taiwan following the 2018 election. This became hugely unpopular in Taiwan. Add to that the widely reported protests in Hong Kong against the Chinese government that seemed a warning to Taiwan. In any event, it is uncertain if either issue will still have much gravitas by year’s end. They may well fade.
Further, many DPP voters will likely remember President Tsai’s weak stance on independence before the 2018 election and then her epiphany afterwards and the fact the DPP primary was rigged in her favour and against former premier William Lai (a stouter advocate of independence). If these issues recede the public’s view of President Tsai, it will likely revert to how voters previously saw her success, or rather lack of it, in promoting economic growth, helping the youth, passing reform legislation, etc. Thus, sustaining her good poll numbers now seems a hard row to hoe.
Mayor Han is a populist. He is unpredictable and in your face. This doesn’t fit conservative Taiwan. Further Han is prone to mistakes. His frankness and sometimes insulting talk can easily get him in trouble. In other words, Han adds unpredictability to Taiwan’s election politics. A month or so ago, Han’s popularity was higher than the other candidates by a good margin. It was seriously dented by the fact he promised to stay on the job after he was elected Kaohsiung Mayor, but less than six months into his term as Mayor he announced he was running for president. He also broached a number of attention-getting projects and invitations to global celebrities to visit Kaohsiung that have yet to see results. Meanwhile two civic organizations have launched a recall drive against him. Polls show voter support for Han tumbled.
There is more. Han’s advisors beseech him to stop drinking until the election is over and avoid the issue of unification and in particular the 92 Consensus. Will he do that? If he turns his back on the Consensus, how will his faithful followers take it? For a first time ever, observers have stated that members of both parties supported the other’s candidate that won seeing him or her as the weaker contestant and easier to beat. Enter a number of other variables that will likely affect who will win the election in January 2020.
The economy has always been a factor to consider when assessing an election campaign or predicting the results. Growth in Taiwan’s gross domestic product (GDP) is the most telling number. Both international financial institutions and local economic organizations and think tanks are not sanguine about Taiwan’s GDP growth in 2019 and after. They forecast it would be in the range of 2 percent — below the other little Asian dragons (South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore) that Taiwan’s residents take as their frame of reference. Worse, Taiwan will grow at a pace below the world’s average and around one-third of China’s. This is not good news for President Tsai and her ruling party.
Alas, the Tsai administration has done little to correct this. The president and her advisors seem to believe that reducing economic inequity and coping with the China threat are more important. Are they right? It is hard to say. One should certainly expect the KMT to paint the Tsai and the DPP as poor stewards of the economy.
The KMT will no doubt also cast President Tsai as having failed in her efforts to fulfil promises of reform. That was part of the reason for the party’s poor showing in the election of 2018. And not too much has changed since then. They will also indict both Tsai and the DPP for authoritarianism, cronyism, corruption and undermining the Constitution.
Indeed, the Tsai administration has passed legislation and has used extra-Constitutional rules to stymie China’s influence in Taiwan. This is the pretext, the KMT says, for violating many residents’ civil rights. The KMT also portrays this as partisan and witch hunting. Likewise, they charge that the crusade to force the KMT to relinquish its party funds said to be gained illegally is un-Constitutional and anyway former President Chen long ago said this issue had been resolved. KMT leaders also say that many DPP legislators have shown they do not have their constituents’ interests at heart, but rather their own. This was reported in the media during the 2018 election campaign and according to post-election polls influenced voters.
The DPP charges that the KMT is Taiwan’s “authoritarian party” just as it was in the past under Chiang Kai-shek. They have already revived the February 28, 1947 event when Chiang’s military killed Taiwanese who were protesting the economic and political mess in Taiwan to influence voters. They depict the KMT as an elitist party that is out of touch with most citizens and that favours the rich and big businesses with China connections — the latter suggesting the KMT is a “party of traitors.” Which side’s arguments will have greater resonance depends on what transpires between August 2019 and January 2020 and how effective each is in presenting its case?
Another big unknown is the advent of spoilers joining the 2020 election campaign. This means independent candidates for president and new political parties. Tsai and Han’s deficiencies certainly afford them an opening. Moreover, the polls show voters are less happy with the major political parties than usual.
The foremost challenge, cum threat, to the “existing order” is Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je running as an independent aided or even joined by Fox Conn’s head Terry Guo, Taiwan’s richest individual. Ko is a populist and his favourable opinion numbers are high. Guo could provide funding for a campaign in the event the two join forces. Lest we forget Ko won the Taipei Mayor’s race in 2014 with the help and sponsorship of the DPP. Subsequently they became estranged over Ko’s visits to China, his statements that Taiwanese and Chinese are “of the same family” and some other matters. In 2018, the DPP offered a candidate to challenge Ko. Ko won easily.
Terry Guo was at odds with the KMT during the primary election. He complained over the procedures that he felt favoured Han Kuo-yu. He did not subsequently renew his KMT party membership. Other possibilities that have been mentioned are James Soong or Wang Jin-pyng partnering with Ko. Soong could provide Ko with a needed party organization. Wang offers political experience.
Another challenge to a two-party contest in January 2020 is third parties. The People First Party and the New Power Party can sponsor a presidential candidate. While it appears neither will do so, one or both may take away enough votes for legislative candidates to deny a majority to either the DPP or the KMT. There are also some new parties. Ko Wen-je has already taken steps to form a new party. A new independence party has announced, which may take away DPP voters who still perceive Tsai is not taking a sufficiently robust stance on independence. In short, there are many would-be challenges to a “normal” (two-party) election in January.
Another matter is presidential/vice presidential debates leading up to January 11, 2020. By most observers’ judgments, Tsai Ing-wen lost to two other candidates (Eric Chu and James Soong) in 2016; yet she won election. Voters had confidence in her ability. They still see her as a force for stability. In 2020, she will face a quintessential charismatic, populist politician who thrives on controversy. The result is difficult to predict.
Finally, the two world powers, China and the United States, will impact the campaign and possibly the results of the election. But exactly how and to what degree is a question mark. China may not want to get involved in an intrusive way; that failed in the past. Yet it is obvious which side Beijing favours — the KMT. China will inevitably be a factor affecting the campaign. The US State Department regularly declares it favours neither side, only Taiwan’s democracy. But that is patently not true. Washington influenced past campaigns. It favoured Tsai in the DPP’s primary. Currently it has exhibited pro-Tsai policies as part of its playing the Taiwan card against China. However, it is uncertain what the Trump administration will do when a trade bargain is reached with China.
In conclusion, there currently are too many unknowns and incalculable to make a reasonable prediction about who will win Taiwan’s 2020 election. But as many of the “what ifs” cited above are answered in coming weeks and months, there will be better evidence to foresee the election’s outcome. If so, the election may not be so unpredictable after all.
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.