Election to watch 2020: Taiwan

Written by Chun-yi Lee.

Image credit:  總統出席「106年三軍六校院聯合畢業典禮」,與畢業生握手致意 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

This article was originally published by ISPI and can be found here.

On 11 January 2020, Taiwanese voters will head to the ballot box and elect their next president. This short essay will explain why we should pay attention to this election and will particularly focus on Taiwan’s receding populism. My observation is that populism follows on from economic anxiety—a phenomenon that is faced by most democracies in Europe and the United States. Taiwan is no exception, but in January, Taiwan’s populist candidate will probably not be victorious. This is due to the immediate threat faced by Taiwan – in other words, the ‘China factor’.

There are three parties and candidates registered for the 2020 presidential election: the incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen (from the Democratic Progressive Party or DPP); Han Kuo-yu, from the Kuomintang (KMT); and James Soong, from the People First Party. But the ‘real’ competition is between Tsai (DPP) and Han (KMT), which I will examine here. Following this, I will explain why Han, as a populist figure in Taiwan, won a landslide victory in Kaohsiung’s 2018 mayoral election, and why, since joining the presidential election campaign in 2019, his popularity has not superseded that of Tsai.

Kaohsiung is the second largest city in Taiwan, and Han’s victory there in 2018 ended two decades of DPP governance. The main reasons Han won included his focus on boosting Kaohsiung’s economy, and speaking in a language that ‘people understood’. For example, he planned to build a Disneyland theme park, and pursued closer relations with China, selling goods and vegetables there and promoting his pineapple politics. Han indicated that he only sought to promote business with China and would not touch thorny political issues, strongly supporting the 1992 consensus. His approach was very much in tune with what Beijing wanted; so long as Taiwan’s leader acknowledged the 1992 consensus, China would warmly welcome Taiwanese products.

Han’s approach has been in stark contrast with that of the incumbent president, Tsai Ing-wen. Since Tsai came to power, her government has refused to accept the 1992 consensus. She has sought to divert business and investment away from China to Southeast Asian countries. Her government has initiated several new working projects aimed at strengthening economic, and people-to-people, connections between Taiwan and Southeast Asia. These initiatives follow on from other ‘southbound’ policies beginning in the mid-1990s with Lee Teng-hui, and then with Chen Shui-bian in the 2000s. It can be argued that Taiwanese investment in Southeast Asia was already increasing before Tsai’s new southbound policy (NSP), yet Taiwan’s economic dependency on China still weighs much more heavily than Taiwan’s investment in Southeast Asian countries. And the response from Beijing has led to a frozen cross-Strait relationship, limits on the number of mainland tourists visiting the island, and a reduced international space for Taiwan, which had only fifteen diplomatic allies left at the end of 2019.

To Taiwanese voters, it might have looked like Tsai had distanced herself from the economic benefits that could be gained from China, while Han’s approach promised more economic security. This was the scenario in November 2018, when Han won an overwhelming victory in Kaohsiung’s mayoral election, and Tsai subsequently lost her leadership within the DPP. But two events altered this picture: first, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s message to Taiwan in January of 2019, and second, the eruption of protests in Hong Kong in June.

On 1 January 2019, Xi had some tough words for the Taiwanese, warning them that unification was the ultimate goal of any cross-Strait talks and that the PRC did not rule out the possibility of using military force to achieve this. Xi’s talk led to a lot of backlash from Taiwanese society, and Tsai’s firm response began winning over people’s hearts and minds. Protests in Hong Kong then began in June, and her performance in polls improved. We might conclude that Xi’s threats triggered, or revived, anti-China sentiment in Taiwan. This is not a new phenomenon; during Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election in 1996, a missile threat from China showed that Taiwanese voters were prepared to resist such intimidation and vote for the party Beijing disliked. However, why have the ongoing protests in Hong Kong dramatically increased support for Tsai?

There are two main reasons. First, Tsai’s response towards the Hong Kong protests has been much stronger than Han’s. The movement in Hong Kong in fact gave Taiwanese society hope that it was possible to stand strong in front of the Beijing government, as their Hong Kong friends had done. Tsai has consistently supported the protests in Hong Kong, which in many Taiwanese eyes is courageous—a sentiment that finds expression in polls. Second, Taiwan’s support for the Hong Kong protests shows that Taiwanese people have no appetite for the ‘one country, two systems’ constitutional principle. This approach has been adopted in Hong Kong since 1997, but the protests indicate that Hongkongers do not favour it.

We cannot say whether this will translate into electoral victory for Tsai or not. But polling indicates (as of December 10th, 2019) that more than 50% of voters will lend their support to Tsai, compared to only 29% for Han. I would argue this is due to a combination of the China threat and the Hong Kong protests, which provided a very convenient opportunity for Tsai. Finally, we might ask if the Taiwanese case provides a solution to the rise of populism around the globe.  The answer is yes—and no. Taiwan’s case is unique, but it does show that when a country faces a tangible, external threat to its sovereignty, people are willing to drop their support for a populist figure, support for whom is driven by economic anxiety. If Tsai Ing-wen is elected on the 11th of January, Taiwan will have shown that populism can be defeated.

Chun-yi Lee is an Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relation (SPIR) at the University of Nottingham. She is also the Editor of the Taiwan Insight and the Director of Taiwan Studies Programme.

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