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Taiwan’s political landscape ahead of elections

Written by Gisela Grieger,

Public opinion polls suggest that the 16 January presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan are likely to bring about a change in power. The ruling nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), which advocates stronger ties with mainland China is expected to lose the presidency, and possibly even its majority in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s unicameral chamber, to the independence-leaning opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP’s arrival in power could challenge peaceful and stable cross-strait relations and have wider security implications, since more than 1 100 short-range ballistic missiles on mainland China point to Taiwan whose security is guaranteed by the US.

Achievements of President Ma’s policy of rapprochement with mainland China

Ballot box with national flag on background - Republic of China - Taiwan

© niyazz / Fotolia

President Ma Ying-jeou, who will step down after two terms in office (2008-2016), has pursued a policy of rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), culminating in his historic meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in late 2015, seen as the PRC’s attempt to keep the KMT in power. Ma’s policy is based on the informal ‘1992 consensus‘, also known as ‘one China, respective interpretations’, agreed between the PRC’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT, although the parties disagree on what ‘one China’ means. Issues of sovereignty and security were thus off their common agenda. Ma has translated the consensus into his ‘Three Nos policy’: no unification, no independence, and no use of force.

His pragmatic framework of ‘economics first, politics later; easy first, difficult later’ has resulted in the end of six decades of hostilities and the gradual normalisation of cross-strait relations. The consultation mechanism created for their management has facilitated official exchanges between the KMT and the CCP but has excluded the opposition DPP which so far is not accepted by the PRC as a dialogue partner, since it does not adhere to the ‘1992 consensus’. This has allowed the KMT to portray itself consistently as the only party that can deal with mainland China. Ma’s main achievements are the creation of regular postal, air and maritime traffic connections, flourishing cross-strait tourism, and the conclusion of 23 agreements, with the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), an ‘early harvest’ tariff-elimination pact, at their core.

The limits of President Ma’s policy

Despite Ma’s track record in normalising cross-strait relations his pro-China policy has met with growing discontent from the Taiwanese people, particularly the younger generation which perceives it as bent excessively towards the PRC and as a main reason for widening socio-economic cleavages in Taiwan. Criticism centres on the big business bias of government policies which have scarcely benefited ordinary Taiwanese. Rising social inequality in Taiwan, with high youth unemployment, high housing costs, low wages and a sluggish economy, is associated with economic overdependence on the PRC and further increasing it with major economic and political risks. China’s economic rebalancing is regarded as entailing uncertainties for Taiwan’s largely export-driven economy. Growing economic reliance on Taiwan’s biggest trade partner also raises fears of creeping political unification through business deals rather than missiles or tanks.

Ma’s policy of emphasising a broader Chinese cultural identity has spurred a steady rise in Taiwanese identity, with large parts of the island’s population today considering themselves more distinct from mainland China than ever before. As President Ma’s term comes to a close, it appears clear that the PRC and Taiwan have become much closer economically but drifted further apart politically, with Taiwanese strongly attached to their democratic institutions, civil law system, the rule of law, and broad political freedoms. The PRC’s refusal in 2014 to accommodate the demands of Hong Kong’s largely student-led Occupy Central or Umbrella movement for more electoral freedom has increased worries in Taiwan about the PRC’s potential application of the ‘one country, two systems’ formula (as used in Hong Kong and Macao) on the island in the event of political reunification. Anti-PRC sentiment has been manifested in grassroots civic protests, including the Sunflower movement. In March 2014, students occupied the Legislative Yuan for several weeks calling for more transparency and legislative scrutiny of cross-strait pacts. The legislature decided not to ratify the 2013 Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) without a monitoring framework for cross-strait deals in place. In November 2014, local elections saw the KMT defeated by an unprecedented margin.

The three presidential candidates and their election prospects

Although three candidates are running for president: Tsai Ing-wen (DPP chair), Eric Chu (KMT chair), and James Soong (chair of the People First Party (PFP), a KMT spin-off), the latter is considered a spoiler who is not likely to win the presidential elections. All candidates are committed to promoting stable and peaceful cross-strait relations, with none of them having expressed extreme positions on independence or unification with the aim not to repel mainstream voters, who according to a September 2015 poll are predominantly in favour of a perpetual ‘status quo’.

Eric Chu, KMT chair, supported by the Taiwanese business elite and endorsed by the PRC, is associated with President Ma’s advocacy of ever closer economic integration with mainland China as the only way of securing peace and stability in cross-strait relations.

Tsai Ing-wen previously ran for the presidency in 2012, but was defeated by incumbent President Ma. Contrary to 2012, when Tsai emphasised her pro-independence stance embodied in the ‘Taiwan consensus’, she has tempered her position in the current presidential race to avoid the spectre of a return to contention and instability in the Taiwan Strait. But to critics, her concept of the ‘status quo’ of peace and stability has remained too vague and lacks credibility. Tsai differs sharply from Chu in her call for political reforms and redistributive policies which takes up demands from Taiwan’s vibrant civil activist movements, collectively termed the Third Force. She advocates a nuclear-free energy policy – against the KMT and a vocal nuclear energy lobby pointing to investors’ concerns about energy security. Tsai opposes the KMT’s economic policies of tax cuts, economic liberalisation and free economic pilot zones, proposing instead to launch ‘Asia’s Silicon Valley and a green energy park‘ to address brain drain as well as the lack of advanced technologies and innovation, which she has identified as key structural problems in Taiwan’s stagnant economy.

In a November 2015 poll, Tsai led by double digits as candidate for the presidency, with 48.2% compared to Chu (19.4%) and Soong (11.6%). Given similar results in more recent polls, Tsai has good prospects of becoming Taiwan’s first female president. Asked about their preferences for the next majority in the Legislative Yuan, 50.3% of respondents and 60.1% of young voters would favour the DPP gaining more than a majority of the total 113 seats, to prevent the next government from leaning further towards China.

Two likely scenarios and their implications

If the DPP wins only the presidency but the KMT secures a legislative majority in line with the current electoral system, this could result in a divided government since Taiwan’s constitutional arrangements do not favour a French-style ‘cohabitation’. This occurred during the 2000-2008 period when the KMT bypassed DPP President Chen Shui-bian and pursued its pro-China policy. If the DPP wins both the presidency and a large legislative majority, it could enact major domestic policy changes. Taiwan’s foreign policy space would then depend on the future direction of cross-strait relations and the geo-political environment determined by US-China relations. The DPP’s strict adherence – after its election – to its status quo pledge, considered a red line by the US, and the PRC’s constructive response to reaching common ground with a second-choice interlocutor would be crucial to managing cross-strait relations peacefully. The DPP’s dilemma would be that it could only obtain more policy space for its ‘new’ ‘go south‘ trade diversification policy by pursuing ever closer economic ties with the PRC which is a key element in its criticism of the Ma government. While alarmist analysts raise the possibility of a cross-strait crisis, including economic sanctions, suspension of communications or even ‘military coercion or force’, others forecast continuity in cross-strait ties, pointing to secret meetings of PRC officials with the DPP and the disconnect between official rhetoric and action. Both the US and PRC are expected to take steps to prevent cross-strait ties from regressing to pre-2008 tensions.


In its 16 December 2015 resolution on EU-China relations, the European Parliament took the view that ‘a gradual demilitarisation of the region would further facilitate the rapprochement of the parties’ and emphasised ‘that all cross-strait disputes should be settled by peaceful means on the basis of international law’. The EU adheres to the ‘One China’ policy, entertaining no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan although it engages in non-political relations with it as an economic and commercial entity distinct from the PRC.


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