The incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen is seen as tougher on China — and that may help her.
And her expected victory has a lot to do with China, and the continuing upheaval in Hong Kong.
China always hangs over Taiwan’s elections. Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China, was established in 1949, when the Chinese nationalists fled after the Communist Party took control in mainland China. It wasn’t always a democracy; Taiwan was ruled by one party (the Kuomintang) until democratic reforms took hold in 1980s, and it’s had direct presidential elections since 1996.
When it comes to mainland China and Taiwan, as Vox’s Jennifer Williams has explained:
The two territories have been governed separately ever since, with both governments claiming to be the legitimate representative of “One China” — that is, China and Taiwan.”
Most countries, including the US, only have formal diplomatic relations with mainland China and don’t officially recognize the government in Taiwan …
Just a handful of countries have formal ties with Taiwan, but its democratic rule and de facto independence remain a sore spot for Beijing, which wants to exert its influence there and, ultimately, bring the island back under its control.
And during this year’s elections, Beijing might be even harder to ignore. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been explicit that he wants to reunify Taiwan and mainland China, and he appears willing to use force to do so. That could establish a “one country, two systems” setup that currently governs its relationship with Hong Kong. For many Taiwanese, six months of massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have shown just what a bad deal that would be.
Here’s a quick overview of Taiwan’s elections this Saturday.
How China — and Hong Kong — play into Taiwan’s elections
Tsai, the incumbent Taiwanese president, is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favors an independent Taiwan. She was first elected in 2016, along with a majority in Taiwan’s legislature, the Legislative Yuan.
Her tenure faced some troubles early on. In 2018, the DPP suffered big defeats in local elections, which were seen as a rebuke of her leadership. Tsai was forced to resign as leader of the party, and the calls quickly began for her not to seek reelection in 2020.
But Tsai’s candidacy has surged in recent months, and her tough line against China and unequivocal embrace of the protesters in Hong Kong likely has a lot to do with it. Many Taiwanese who worry about Chinese encroachment see Tsai (who also has cultivated pretty strong ties with the US) as the better candidate to protect Taiwan from Beijing’s heavy hand. This is especially true of Taiwan’s younger voters, who’ve grown up with Taiwan as a democracy.
Tsai has played this up as a campaign issue, too, including running campaign ads that compare normal daily life in Taiwan with the unrest in Hong Kong. “Part of it [is an] effort by Tsai and by her party to show that she is the one that can protect Taiwan’s sovereignty and security,” Bonnie Glaser, the China Power Project director at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, told me.
This has still created a problem for Tsai’s primary opponent, Han Kuo-yu, who represents the Kuomintang Party (KMT), which tends to be more favorable to China. Han, who won a key mayoral election in a DPP stronghold in 2018, has since struggled because he’s seen as being too friendly toward Beijing at a time when the Hong Kong protests make that position look a lot less tenable.
Glaser said the Hong Kong protests wouldn’t be as large an issue if there wasn’t an upcoming election, mostly because “people in Taiwan don’t look to Hong Kong as their future. They never have.”
In other words, even voters who may see the benefit in closer ties between Taiwan and China never envisioned Taiwan becoming a vassal state, even before the protests.
And this includes Han himself, who has explicitly said Taiwan would enter a “one country, two systems” arrangement with China “over my dead body.”
But Han is open to seeking closer economic and cultural ties with Beijing, arguing that a tighter relationship with the mainland will better secure Taiwan’s economy in the long term.
Han was also implicated in a scandal this fall, when a man who claimed to be a Chinese intelligence operative told Australian authorities that Beijing had been meddling in elections in Hong Kong and Taiwan, including by spreading disinformation. This alleged operative also claimed that he had poured about $20 million directly into Han’s 2018 mayoral campaign, which Han has denied.
Still, Beijing likely prefers Han over Tsai (there’s one other candidate running, but these are the main two) and that’s increased popular skepticism of him in these tense times. And there’s little doubt that China is again trying to interfere in Taiwan’s vote, using tools to spread fake news and disinformation.
China has moved in more direct ways to put pressure on Tsai, including conducting military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. The question is whether such pressure will intensify if Tsai wins reelection.
At present, it’s difficult to know if Tsai will come to office with a resounding mandate. Though she has a large lead in the polls, the ultimate makeup of the Legislative Yuan could be a little more interesting. If Tsai’s party retains its majority, that will go a long way to determining how effective she can be in implementing her agenda — and would undoubtedly be another rebuke against Beijing.
Author: Jen Kirby