Written By Wen-Ti Sung.
Taiwan hosted its quadrennial presidential and legislative elections on 11 January 2020. Shaping the contours of these critical elections is first and foremost the impending US-China strategic rivalry, as manifested in the Hong Kong crisis and the resultant prioritisation of national security above all other campaign issues on the part of the Taiwanese electorate.
After the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered among its worst electoral defeats in almost three decades at the mid-term elections at the end of 2018, the 2020 elections gave it a renewed opportunity as the primary electoral cleavage issues shifted from governance issues such as pension reform and cultural wars over the legalisation of same-sex marriage to more ‘high security’ issues of national identity, as manifested in the two leading parties’ cross-Strait platforms.
Going into the 2020 electoral cycle, both major political camps – the independence-leaning DPP and the relatively China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) – underwent primaries for the presidential nomination. Long story short, of the two main political camps, the DPP’s President Tsai Ing-wen was able to emerge from the primary with additional assets, having solidified her centrist credentials and, more importantly, regaining once-lost favour from the orthodox independence voters. Meanwhile, the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu emerged from the primary wounded, having been stuck with a primary-friendly but general election-unfriendly China-dove platform going forward
The Tsai administration’s approval ratings remained low in the first half of the year, while Han enjoyed a halo effect from his unique populist appeal to undecided or traditionally politically apathetic voters. The presidential election might have been a close contest – until the Hong Kong protests broke out.
Scenes of stand-offs in Hong Kong overtook Taiwan’s airwaves and heightened concern for Taiwan’s own national security in the face of the Chinese giant next-door. A natural rallying-around-the-flag approval rate bonus boosted President Tsai (who is after all the incumbent commander-in-chief), and put Han Kuo-yu’s hitherto China-friendly posture on the defensive. Han since attempted to pivot back to the center on China policy, combining his existing emphasis on economic opportunities from China with a new emphasis on defending Taiwan’s sovereignty – including the campaign rally speech when he stipulated that under his government ‘One Country Two Systems’ will not apply to Taiwan, “over my dead body”.
Yet, Han’s late-game recalibration proved to be too little, too late. As the Hong Kong crisis turned the Taiwanese 2020 elections into essentially a referendum on China policy, a China-skeptic DPP tsunami ensued on election day, and President Tsai won re-election with 8.1 million votes – the highest number of popular votes in history – pocketing some 57% of total ballots, while her DPP retained majority in the Parliament with slightly reduced number of seats. Meanwhile, Han lost in 16 out of 22 municipalities, barely retaining six smaller counties in ethnic minority-heavy areas and offshore islands.
As to the legislature, the ruling DPP was also able to retain its majority, albeit with slightly reduced margins. General lukewarm approval ratings for the Tsai administration, coupled with apprehension about a Han victory, meant close to a third of the party list votes – that are responsible for allocating proportional representation seats – went to Taiwan’s many small parties instead, signaling dissatisfaction with the two party system.
Looking forward, with such electoral incentives on full display, and with the US-China rivalry showing little sign of truly slowly down, the DPP will have even fewer reason to recalibrate back to the center on China policy in the foreseeable future. It remains to be seen whether Beijing will seek to deescalate tension with Taiwan out of concern for stability in the broader US-China relations, and finally extend an olive branch to the Tsai government now that it is crystal-clear that the Tsai is here to stay. Beijing may instead decided to double-down on its hardline approach of the last two years and use symbolic measures such as diplomatic isolation to chip away Tsai’s approval ratings, hoping to create political space for a China-friendlier political force to emerge.
Domestically, one challenge for Tsai and the DPP is the newfound diversity of pan-green junior allies that emerged in this electoral cycle. Whereas in the past four years (2016-2020) the DPP only had to work with the New Power Party (NPP) within its camp, now it has to work with the NPP, the newly-ascendant Taiwan Statebuilding Party, the Green Party, and especially the new Taiwan People’s Party, whose position on cross-Strait relations and many domestic governance issues remain under-defined.
Meanwhile, the relatively China-friendly KMT, having seen its cross-Strait posture rebuffed so convincingly, has much soul-searching to do, as it juggles its China-friendly loyalist supporters while working on a new platform acceptable to the Taiwanese mainstream. There are two primary avenues to carry out policy rethinking. First, on cross-Strait policy: will the KMT seek to repackage the ‘1992 Consensus’ – which has been its over-arching cross-Strait manta of the last 15 years and which was soundly rejected in the 2020 elections – to reinvigorate the party’s appeal to the Taiwanese electorate? Or will it continue to hold on to the 1992 Consensus to further build trust with Beijing, and use the KMT’s unique advantage in currying economic windfalls from China as the KMT’s main electoral appeal?
Alternatively, on domestic policy, for a party with predominantly social-liberal-like constituency, namely support from women and ethnic minority voters, the KMT is peculiarly conservative on its economic and especially social policy platforms. It has so far untapped potential in transitioning towards a social liberal political coalition. In lieu of changes to China policy, perhaps a greater embrace of socially liberal causes on social and cultural policies will be an avenue for the KMT to regain favour with youth voters and pave the way back to power. Will the KMT choose to update its China policy, pursue social liberal ideological reengineering, or remain stuck in its current stasis?
Wen-Ti Sung is a Ph.D. candidate at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, who specializes in cross-strait relations, Chinese elite politics, and US’ China policy epistemic community. He is a recent MOFA Taiwan Fellowship visiting fellow and an Asian Studies visiting fellow at the East-West Center. An earlier version of this article was published on the Presidential Power blog.