Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
On Saturday, 11 January 2020, the people of Taiwan went to the polls to elect their president and parliament. It was the seventh time in the country’s history that free and open elections were held: before the early 1990s, Taiwan was ruled by the authoritarian Kuomintang (KMT), which had come over from China in the late 1940s when Chiang Kai-shek lost the Chinese Civil War.
President Tsai Ing-wen, who was first elected in 2016, was re-elected with an overwhelming majority of 57.1% against 38.6% for her KMT opponent, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu. James Soong of the People First Party came in a distant third with only 4.26% of votes. The voter turnout was a very high 74.9%.
In the Legislative Yuan the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) maintains an absolute majority of 61 seats (down seven seats from its previous high of 68 seats), against 38 seats for the KMT (up three from its previous 35 seats). The DPP can count on the support of some of the smaller parties, the New Power Party (NPP) with three seats, the new Taiwan Nation-Building Party with one seat, and four or five independents like singer Freddy Lim.
A new kid on the Legislative Yuan block will be Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which won five seats. Ko, who was elected Taipei Mayor an independent in 2014, and re-elected in 2018, has been trying to position himself as a third force separate from both the KMT and DPP. But he has been erratic in his local policies and has angered many by cozying up to the People’s Republic of China.
Tsai’s overwhelming victory represents a tremendous comeback, as her popularity was at an all-time low just one year ago after the disastrous local elections of November 2018. The KMT made major gains in the 218 races for county magistrates and city mayors, including the race for Kaohsiung mayor which Han Kuo-yu won.
But in the first half of 2019 Tsai and her team regrouped and reorganised, and in June 2019 beat back a challenge to her candidacy by former Prime Minister William Lai, who represented the deeper green spectrum of the DPP. The two sides reconciled and by October the DPP had a united front, and Lai agreed to become Tsai’s running mate.
In the meantime, a major development had taken place across the Taiwan Strait that would have a major effect on the elections: the Hong Kong protests against the proposed extradition law, and the harsh response by Hong Kong’s police. The many weeks of broadcasted images of policemen arresting and beating demonstrators showed the people in Taiwan that the “One Country, Two Systems” concept was not for them.
Tsai grasped the importance of the developments in Hong Kong for Taiwan’s discussions on its future and expressed support for the Hong Kong demonstrators’ right to freedom of expression, democracy, and human rights. She contrasted the lack of freedoms in Hong Kong with the freedoms enjoyed by the people in Taiwan.
The victory thus represents a clear mandate for Tsai and her DPP, which – in combination with several of the smaller parties – has a majority of around 70 seats in the 113-seat parliament, and will thus be able to push through legislation to continue the reforms initiated by Tsai in her first term. These will include much-needed judicial reform, transitional justice measures, and further economic and industrial reforms, streamlining the economy and strengthening substantive ties with the US, Europe, Southeast Asia, Japan and Australia and New Zealand.
The major question remains: how will relations with China develop? If Beijing continues its current approach of pushing Taiwan into a corner, it will increasingly find the US and other democratic countries in its way, as the democratic world has now seen clearly that President Tsai has a broad popular mandate, and will be supportive of preserving Taiwan’s democracy and free choice of its future destiny.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he served a chief editor of Taiwan Communique. He currently teaches history of Taiwan at George Mason University.