The election of Tsai Ing-wen as the next president of Taiwan is a major shift in Taiwan’s domestic politics, which will in turn also have a significant impact on the island’s foreign policy. It marks an end to eight years of KMT (Kuomintang) rule and the election of the first female president of Taiwan. In a first, the KMT has lost its majority in the Legislative Yuan (Parliament). In recent polls, the pro-independence DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) won an absolute majority in Taiwan’s 113-seat legislature with 68 seats, a big increase from its earlier tally of 40 while the KMT’s tally tumbled from 64 to 35.
What are the main implications of Tsai Ing-wen’s victory?
First, Tsai’s victory means that cross-strait relations are in for a makeover, as during the KMT-era relations between Taiwan and mainland China had been at an all-time high, which culminated in a historic meeting between the Taiwanese and the Chinese presidents last year in Singapore.
Second, Tsai will have to take major steps to improve the health of the economy since the disaffection of ordinary Taiwanese with the health of the economy played a major role in the KMT’s downfall. According to some estimates, the Taiwanese economy is expected to grow at a rate of just 2.32 percent in 2016 and wages have remained stagnant for many years on end. In addition, cheap products from competitors in China have cut into the market of Taiwanese electronics companies.
Third, Taiwan’s ties with the U.S. and Japan are set to improve. Under the KMT administration, relations with countries other than mainland China had been relegated to the sidelines. In her initial moves after being elected, Tsai Ing-wen has already called for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and for improving ties with Japan.
Fourth, young Taiwanese are increasingly asserting themselves in the political milieu. These elections mark a new era in Taiwanese politics with the election of new legislators like Huang Kuo-chang, a leader of the Sunflower Movement. In the 2014 Sunflower Movement students occupied the Taiwanese Parliament demanding more transparency from the government regarding a trade pact with Beijing. Huang’s New Power Party (NPP) incidentally has become the third-largest party in Taiwan’s Parliament with 5 seats. Another notable victory was that of rock star Freddy Lim, who was elected on a NPP ticket.
What is Tsai Ing-wen signalling?
First, in her victory speech, Tsai promised to preserve the status quo in relations with China. She will have a bigger challenge at home trying to revive the economy and making it less dependent on China. It will also be interesting to watch whether the new president-elect will accept the so-called “1992 consensus,” which implies that both sides of the Taiwan Strait accept that there is “One-China,” though the interpretations vary.
Second, it is highly unlikely that the president-elect will rock the boat as far as cross-strait ties are concerned. The status quo is more than likely to prevail, but she will widen Taiwan’s options with regards to trading and security partners. Another reason she will not risk rocking the boat is because Washington is in no mood to get into any kind of uncomfortable situation in the region, given the headaches it already faces including tensions on the Korean peninsula, China-Japan tensions over the Japanese-held Senkaku islands (which China claims as well), and other issues like the ongoing territorial spat between China and the Philippines.
Third, Beijing may use a slew of steps to make the new president-elect accept the so-called “1992 consensus.” Before the elections, the number of tourists from the mainland to Taiwan saw a decline. While this may or may not have directly orchestrated by Beijing, Taiwan may increasingly face additional such pressure from the mainland. However, given the strong mandate that Tsai Ing-wen has received in these recent elections, she has ample leverage to assert a stronger Taiwanese identity without derailing the cross-strait status quo.
Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is a Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. Between February and December 2015, he was based in Taiwan as a Visiting Scholar. The views expressed are personal. He tweets at @rupakj.