Taiwan’s 2012 Presidential Election

Q1: Who are the candidates?

A1: On Saturday, January 14, Taiwan will hold its fifth direct presidential election, which, for the first time will be combined with the election for a new legislature. The current president and chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT), Ma Ying-jeou, is seeking reelection for a second term; Ma has been credited with improving relations with mainland China over the last four years. Since he assumed the presidency in 2008, 16 agreements—including the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA)—have been signed on practical matters that have largely benefited people on both sides of the Strait.

The primary candidate opposing Ma is Tsai Ing-wen, chairperson for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the first female to run for president. Tsai previously served as vice premier (2006–2007); as Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) chairperson during the first Chen Shui-bian administration (2000–2004); and as a lead negotiator for Taiwan WTO accession talks. Tsai ran for New Taipei City mayor in the November 2010 municipal elections, but was defeated by Eric Chu (KMT).

A third candidate, James Soong, announced his candidacy on September 20, 2011. Soong is the founder and current chairman of the People First Party (PFP), a member of the “pan blue” coalition with the KMT. Prior to founding the PFP in 2000, Soong served as director-general of the Government Information Office (1979–1984), as secretary-general of the KMT (1989–1993), and as governor of Taiwan province (1993–1998). He ran as an independent candidate in the 2000 presidential election and as the vice presidential candidate on the KMT ticket in 2004. Soong is likely to siphon more votes from Ma than from Tsai and could be a decisive factor if he wins more than 5 percent of the vote. In the 2000 election, Soong’s presidential bid enabled Chen Shui-bian to win with only 39.3 percent of the vote.

Q2: What do the latest polls predict?

A2: As of January 3—the last day polls were released prior to the election in accordance with Taiwan’s law—President Ma was holding a narrow lead over the other candidates in most surveys. A TVBS poll, for instance, showed 45 percent of respondents supporting Ma Ying-jeou, 37 percent supporting Tsai Ing-wen, and 6 percent supporting James Soong. However, a China Times poll found the candidates to be much closer. Ma still led with 39.5 percent of respondents’ support, followed closely behind by Tsai with 36.5 percent and Soong with 5.8 percent.

Q3: What are the major issues in the campaign?

A3: As with other democratic elections, domestic social and economic concerns are major issues. Tsai Ing-wen has especially focused on the widening gap in income distribution, the growing financial deficit, increasing unemployment, the need for greater financial assistance to farmers, and protecting the environment. Likewise, Soong has recently accused his two opponents of swapping political rhetoric and ideology without considering the implications for Taiwan’s working class.

Cross-Strait relations and how to engage mainland China have also factored prominently in the campaign, and in this area President Ma may have an advantage over his opponents. As a consequence of Ma’s acceptance of the 1992 Consensus (an understanding that there is only “one China,” though disagreement persists on the definition) and his introduction of the “three no’s” policy (no unification, no independence, and no use of force), cross-Strait relations have improved significantly over the last four years.

Ma and the KMT have been accused by the DPP of endangering Taiwan’s sovereignty and relations with the United States by excessive dependence on the mainland. Tsai has consistently denied the existence of the 1992 Consensus and instead advocated the establishment of a “Taiwan Consensus” as the basis for engagement with Beijing.

Q4: What are the implications of a Ma or Tsai victory for cross-Strait relations? What is at stake for the United States?

A4: Regardless of which candidate wins the election, his or her margin of victory is expected to be small and the next president will lack the broad support necessary to pursue major policy changes. If Ma Ying-jeou is reelected, the relative stability in cross-Strait relations that has prevailed in the past four years is likely to continue. However, progress will be more difficult since the achievements in his first term were based on relatively easy issues. In a second term, issues are likely to come to the fore that are harder both substantively and in terms of eliciting political support on Taiwan. China could grow impatient with Ma and withhold further benefits unless he agrees to open talks on political issues. There is a small possibility that Ma could seek to negotiate a peace accord with Beijing that would end hostilities across the Strait, but not solve the sovereignty dispute.

Should Tsai Ing-wen be elected, the intervening four months prior to her inauguration will likely become a probing period during which Beijing and Taipei will seek to maximize their advantage and extract concessions from the other. Failure to agree on an alternative to the 1992 Consensus that is acceptable to both sides as the basis for engagement could result in a suspension of cross-Strait negotiations, a reduction of visits to Taiwan by mainland tourists and officials, and a slowdown in the implementation of agreements reached during the Ma administration as part of an effort by China to signal to the Taiwan people that Beijing’s good will is contingent on the election of a leader by Taiwan’s voters that supports “one China.” Tensions in cross-Strait relations are unlikely to return to the levels seen during Chen Shui-bian’s reign unless Tsai were to pursue policies aimed at promoting Taiwan’s de jure independence.

The United States has a strong interest in Taiwan’s elections remaining free, fair, and open, and has not explicitly sided with a particular candidate. However, the maintenance of stable cross-Strait relations is critically important as Washington manages growing frictions with Beijing on a range of political, economic, and security issues. Regardless of the victor, the United States will continue to engage both sides of the Strait in an effort to shape an environment that keeps cross-Strait communication channels open and effective in solving problems and managing differences.

Q5: How do the legislative elections factor in?

A5: While the KMT, which now holds 81 of the total 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan, is expected to retain only a slim majority; the DPP is likely to win around 45 seats (an increase from 27 seats), and the PFP will win 5 or so. If the LY remains under KMT control, but Tsai wins the presidential election, there would likely be political gridlock. The LY would also then be in a position to impose restraint on how much policy change she could move forward (such as changes to the Constitution) and could make delivery on campaign promises uncertain.

Bonnie Glaser is a senior fellow with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Brittany Billingsley is a research associate with the CSIS Freeman Chair.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Bonnie S. Glaser

Brittany Billingsley