Taiwanese Elections 2016: The Future of Cross-Strait Relations

Tim Shieh, JHU:

On January 16th, Taiwan elected Tsai Ing-wen to become the first-ever female president to lead the island nation. Tsai, the chairwoman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won in a landslide, garnering over 56% of total votes compared to 31% for the governing Kuomintang’s (KMT) candidate Eric Chu.

The election follows eight years of governance under the leadership of KMT president Ma Ying-jou, who has suffered a number of setbacks during his administration. These include the death of a conscript during excessive hazing in July 2013 and the Sunflower Movement in the spring of 2014, where student protestors stormed and occupied the Legislative Yuan for 23 days to call for a more transparent political process. More recently, Taiwanese-native and Korean pop singer Zhou Zi Yu sparked controversy after displaying the Taiwanese flag as her country of origin— a move seen by some in the entertainment industry as a sign of tacit support for Taiwanese independence.

In addition to these high-profile scandals, the issues that overwhelmingly determined the outcome of the election were Taiwan’s stagnating economy and its relationship with Mainland China. The incumbent KMT has advocated for closer relations with Beijing. Under Ma, one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed was the reopening of the Three Links. This effectively meant the creation of direct commercial flights from Taiwanese airports to major Chinese cities.

These stronger ties, however, have had consequences some fear encroach on Taiwan’s national sovereignty. The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed in 2010 eased restrictions on Chinese investment in 42 sectors of Taiwan. Specifically, the freedom of press could be threatened by Chinese ownership of Taiwanese media companies. Additionally, Taiwan’s economy has been growing at a dismal .85% in 2015, with wages falling so low that college graduates are seeking minimum wage jobs at fast food companies abroad. The country also possesses both an aging demographic and record-low birth rates, making many government services like universal healthcare unsustainable in the long run.

According to Tsai’s economic platform, she would decrease Taiwan’s trade reliance on the Mainland by pushing for Taiwanese inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Additionally, she wants to spur innovation in biotechnology and precision machinery, transforming Taiwan into a services-based economy.

Tsai had been seen as a favorite to win the election for quite some time. In the 2014 municipal elections, the DPP won seven mayoral seats in traditional KMT strongholds, including Taichung and Taoyuan. More significantly, DPP-endorsed independent Ko Wen-je captured Taipei, making it the first time in Taiwanese history the KMT has not controlled the nation’s capital. Thus, Tsai’s victory not only signifies a sudden change in policy, it symbolizes a long-term, fundamental shift in Taiwanese politics. The KMT’s loss in parliament was so significant that even leaders of the Sunflower Movement and a member of a progressive rock band became political representatives.

Tsai’s victory marks the first time a woman will hold the highest office in Taiwan. She will also be the second woman to be elected president in East Asia following the 2013 election of Park Geun-hye in South Korea.

Taiwan’s democracy is still a young one, having only opened up elections to the general public in 1996. Just last week, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake rocked the southern city of Tainan, leaving 116 people dead and hundreds more injured. Investigators later found that parts of the building were stacked with empty tin cans instead of cement, an indication of corporate fraud and negligent due diligence.

Tsai concluded her victory speech in January in front of thousands of supporters with the phrase “humility, humility and more humility.” How Tsai deals with unpredictable natural disasters like the earthquake and deeper issues of government corruption will be just as important as how she shifts Taiwan’s relationship with China.

For the sake of the future existence of Taiwan, I hope that either her campaign promises can be upheld or the KMT undergoes serious reforms. Taiwan is currently at a pivotal stage in its development after being named as an “Asian Tiger” in the late 20th century. I hope that the Taiwan I go home to in 30 years is one that will have prospered in these challenging circumstances rather than faltered in its wake.

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