Tsai Ing-wen and DPP Win Big in Taiwan

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a landslide victory in Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections on Saturday, January 16, ousting the Kuomintang (KMT) from office. President-elect Tsai Ing-wen’s DPP has traditionally leaned in favor of independence from China, but Tsai, a 59 year old lawyer, has pledged to maintain the status quo in cross-Strait relations. Nevertheless, she has refused to accept the “1992 Consensus,” an agreement between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that the two sides of the Strait are part of “one China” even though they disagree over who has sovereignty and don’t recognize each other’s legitimacy. When she is inaugurated on May 20, Tsai will become Taiwan’s first female president. This is Taiwan’s third peaceful transfer of power through direct elections and is a testament to the strength and vitality of Taiwan’s democracy.

Q1: What were the election results?

A1: Tsai Ing-wen received 6.89 million votes, or 56.1 percent of the popular vote. KMT candidate Eric Chu trailed with 3.81 million votes, or 31 percent, and the People’s First Party (PFP) candidate James Soong came in last with 1.58 million vote, 12.8 percent. Tsai was just over 2 points shy of Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 record of 58%. Her 25 point margin of victory—the biggest since Taiwan’s first democratic president election in 1996—demonstrates Taiwan voters’ increasing dissatisfaction with Ma’s handling of the economy and their growing concern about Taiwan’s over closer ties with mainland China. Voter participation in the presidential balloting was 66.27 percent, the lowest of all six presidential elections Taiwan has held in the past two decades. Low voter turnout likely reflected KMT supporters’ dissatisfaction with the KMT candidate and their party’s governing performance.

In the legislative race, the DPP won 68 seats out of 113, up from 40 in the previous election four years ago. This is the first time that the DPP has ever won an absolute majority in the legislature. The KMT won 35 seats, far fewer than the 64 seats it got in 2012. The New Power Party (NPP), which emerged from the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014, won five seats, followed by the PFP with three seats, the Non-Partisan Solidarity Union with one seat, and an independent with one seat.

Q2: How did Beijing react to Tsai’s victory?

A2: China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) released a statement following the election reiterating Beijing’s support for the 1992 Consensus and its resolute opposition to “any form of secessionist activities seeking ‘Taiwan independence.’” The statement sent a strong message to Tsai and the DPP stating that China’s determination to protect its territory and sovereignty is “as strong as a rock.” Xinhua, China’s state run news agency, warned that any moves toward independence were like a “poison” that would cause Taiwan to perish. "If there is no peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan's new authority will find the sufferings of the people it wishes to resolve on the economy, livelihood and its youth will be as useless as looking for fish in a tree," it said.

It is as yet unclear how Beijing will manage relations with a DPP-ruled Taiwan going forward. Unlike prior Chinese leaders, Xi Jinping is his own counsel when it comes to formulating policy toward Taiwan. He has previously used tough language to warn the DPP against challenging Chinese sovereignty. For example, at the 12th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Xi charged that Taiwan’s independence forces pose the greatest threat to cross-Strait stability, adding that without a solid foundation for relations, “the earth will tremble and the mountains will shake.”

Since coming to power, Xi has consistently taken a tough stance on sovereignty issues and he will not likely risk being criticized domestically for being soft on Taiwan. Chinese officials have privately indicated that Beijing plans to suspend official exchanges between the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), as well as between the TAO and the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) in Taiwan. There have also been rumors of Beijing possibly “stealing” some of Taiwan’s 22 diplomatic allies. If Beijing does take coercive measures aimed at compelling Tsai Ing-wen to recognize the existence of “one China,” Tsai could be under domestic pressure to retaliate, creating a negative spiral in cross-Strait relations that could be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

An alternative scenario is that Tsai’s significant margin of victory causes Beijing to re-think its uncompromising stance and adopt a somewhat more flexible approach. In her victory speech, Tsai reaffirmed that her administration’s policy toward the mainland would be based on “the Republic of China constitutional order, the results of cross-Strait negotiations, interactions and exchanges, and democratic principles and the will of the Taiwan’s people.” If both sides believe they need a stable relationship, it is possible that a new understanding or mutual accommodation can be reached.

Q3: What are the implications for the United States?

A3: The U.S. Department of State released a statement congratulating Tsai and the DPP on their victory. In an implicit signal to both Taipei and Beijing, the statement emphasized that the United States shares “with the Taiwan people a profound interest in the continuation of cross-Strait peace and stability.” The statement also highlighted the strong partnership forged between the United States and Taiwan under Ma Ying-jeou’s rule and said the United States looks forward to further strengthening the unofficial relationship between the United States and the people of Taiwan.

The United States also has an abiding interest in Taiwan’s economic prosperity and hopes to see further liberalization of Taiwan’s economic policies, as well as increased attention to the island’s defense. In a show of support for Taiwan and its democracy, as well as to discuss potential challenges ahead, former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns traveled to Taiwan on January 18 with American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Chairman Raymond Burghardt. Current Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken will stop in Beijing later this week for discussions on both North Korea and Taiwan. He will meet with the Director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, Zhang Zhijun. These diplomatic visits mark the beginning of an active U.S. effort with both sides of the Strait to head off a setback in cross-Strait relations that could spill over into U.S.-China relations.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Jacqueline Vitello is a research associate with the China Power Project at CSIS.

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).

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Jacqueline Vitello

Bonnie S. Glaser