What Taiwan's upcoming elections mean for China

What Taiwan's upcoming elections mean for China
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Taiwan is set to hold one of its most important elections in years on January 11. The risk of a cross-strait crisis has grown in the last few years, impacted by evolving domestic politics in both China and Taiwan, as well as the U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

Recently, as social unrest has engulfed Hong Kong, there is a renewed alignment of Taiwanese and Hong Kong activism in defending democratic values, exemplified by the Taiwanese slogan “Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan.” The elections in Hong Kong and Taiwan, falling just a few months apart, has provided avenues for the public to respond to Beijing’s policies. To understand Taiwan’s upcoming presidential and legislative races it is essential to examine the triangular relationship between the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The Taiwanese public has been paying close attention to Hong Kong’s fight for universal suffrage and the unrelenting bankruptcy of the “one country two systems” formula since the protest movements took off. Protest politics dominated Hong Kong’s local elections this past November in outright defiance against the establishment and by extension, Beijing, and gave the pan-democratic camp the largest landslide wins in history.

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Similarly, Taiwan’s political polarization regarding the “China” question is set to penalize the pro-Beijing opposition Kuomintang (KMT) in the political race. The continued unrest in Hong Kong has an inordinate influence in shaping popular opinions on cross-strait ties. While official dialogue is expected to remain cold if Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Tsai is reelected, Han Kuo-yu, a KMT populist Kaohsiung mayor turned candidate, would likely foster a warmer relationship with Beijing.

In the past few months, Tsai’s support for the Hong Kong protesters (and to some extent her rival’s missteps) has helped her campaign and given her a lead in the polls. That lead has continued to widen against her KMT rival, who now trails by over 25 percent. Tsai has framed her campaign around defending democracy and Taiwan, while Han made known his opposition to independence and “one country, two systems.”

Han’s fame was propelled by flipping the longstanding green city of Kaohsiung blue in last year’s mayoral elections. But his popularity has taken a dramatic twist, culminating in a petition to remove him from office on grounds of neglect of duty. The slogan “glorify Kaohsiung, safeguard Taiwan” in an anti-Han rally heavily resembles protest slogans in Hong Kong. The People First Party Chairman James Soong’s late entry into the race is unlikely to have much of an effect, although by boosting his party’s visibility he may gain votes in the general election. 

All national positions are up for grabs in this election, including president, vice president and all 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s national representative body. New parties entering the heat makes it harder for either DPP or KMT to gain a parliamentary majority and may potentially shift the new legislature’s balance of power. Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s Taiwan People’s Party, the pro-independence Formosa Alliance and the Taiwan Action Party Alliance as well as the Taiwan Renewal Party were all established in the second half of the year. Each party is shooting to gain 5 percent of the total ballot to secure “at-large” seats that are based on proportional representation.

In such a competitive race, party unity is key for the DPP and KMT to stand a chance of victory. The DPP will need to bridge its divide on leftist social issues such as same-sex marriage. The KMT is working to recover support from feral infighting and nominating unpopular pro-unification candidates in the party’s list. With declining popularity, some of the KMT's strongest nominees are facing unprecedented intensity in the race.  

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Incumbent legislator Wayne Chiang of Taipei’s third constituency is a case in point. Chiang, the great grandson of Chiang Kai-shek – who ruled Taiwan as an autocratic generalissimo until the 70s – will square off against DPP challenger Enoch Wu. Wu is a legitimate challenge to an otherwise KMT sure-win.

The January election will have grave implications for cross-strait relations. Regardless of who gets elected, Taiwan’s governance will be intertwined with Beijing’s agenda in the coming years amid a global economic slowdown and the rise of nationalistic sentiments. With Hong Kong in defiance and Taiwan drifting further away, Beijing must address popular concerns expressed through casting a vote. If both elections in Hong Kong and Taiwan don’t bring about a shift in Beijing’s policy, nothing probably will. 

Zoe Leung is a senior associate with the EastWest Institute’s Asia Pacific program. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EastWest Institute.