In March this year, I wrote a piece for the Brookings Northeast Asia Commentary looking ahead to Taiwan’s Jan. 14 national elections. With just over two months until voting day, I thought this would be a good chance to revisit this important topic.
It is all too common in the West to hear people complain that elections do not matter. Fortunately, we cannot say this about Taiwan. Since 2008, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has brought about a radical transformation in cross-strait relations and left an important mark on Taiwan’s modern history. It is very unlikely so much would have happened if former premier Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had won the presidency.
So what is special about this campaign?
First, it will be the first time that presidential and legislative elections are held simultaneously, so this campaign feels very different from previous contests.
From my own observations of the national press, it seems the legislative campaigns, overshadowed by the race for the presidency, have completely disappeared. Previous legislative elections received far more media attention. This is unfortunate, as one of the important lessons of the DPP era was that legislative elections are as important as presidential ones. A critical reason why former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) achieved so little was that his party never controlled the legislature.
The importance of the legislature means it deserves real democratic scrutiny: It is not getting this in the current campaign. This term, Ma had a huge legislative majority, but he has delivered very little in terms of domestic reforms. It has been a wasted opportunity.
Over the years, the DPP has tended to put too much stress on presidential elections and neglected legislative campaigning. This year appears to be no exception. This has been a serious mistake in judgement as the legislature represents the most effective institution for checking the KMT.
Second, this has been the least passionate presidential election in Taiwan’s history. In all four previous contests there was genuine voter passion for at least one of the tickets and on some occasions for the two camps. I do not feel this kind of voter enthusiasm this time. Both camps have some catchy TV ads and slogans, but neither has yet come up with anything like an inspiring vision for Taiwan’s future.
Third, I am surprised by how little has changed in terms of the poll standings of the two camps since my March article. My initial understanding was that Ma had a narrow, but not insurmountable lead over his potential DPP rivals. This remains the case against DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) today. In the election campaigns of 2000 and 2004, we saw huge support swings, but so far nothing like that has happened this time. As always, we need to be highly cautious in how we read Taiwanese election polls, considering the political bias of the polling organizations and underestimation of certain partisan support groups. However, it would only take a minor swing for Tsai to win.
China policy has been central to the campaign. This issue seems to be more prominent on the agenda than in 2008, when domestic issues were more influential. Tsai has proposed a “Taiwan consensus,” arguing that Taiwan should try to find domestic agreement on China and cross-strait policies before embarking on further agreements with China. I have made a similar appeal in a previous Taipei Times article. She appears more pragmatic than Chen was on China, but what Tsai has still not fully explained is how the DPP can engage with China without the so-called “1992 consensus.” How would she avoid a repeat of the 1995-2008 cross-strait stalemate?
Ma’s team has criticized Tsai for vagueness on these same questions and will continue to reinforce those attacks as the election draws closer. There is a widespread perception that it is to the KMT’s advantage to focus the campaign agenda on cross-strait issues, but this is not necessarily the case. Ma also has unanswered questions on China. He has achieved what he set out on China in his first term, but what are his plans for the next four years? He has also been rather vague on this. The peace accord idea is an interesting proposal, but this is a long-term objective and not feasible in his second term. In fact, the whole thing may end up backfiring, particularly with his pledge to put any agreement to a referendum.
What I would like to see is more discussion on how the two parties will tackle the pressing domestic issues. For instance, the growing gap between rich and poor, the integration of new migrants, the promotion of gender equality and reforms to Taiwan’s political and judicial systems are just a few issues that need addressing. Hopefully, these discussions will be had in the debates and in the final weeks of the campaign, but I am not too confident: Identity and external relations often dominate the final hot period of the campaign.
One of the surprises this year is James Soong’s (宋楚瑜) candidacy, the first potential third candidate since 2000. However, I doubt he will have a major impact on either campaign. Many assume he will split the pro-KMT vote and favor Tsai’s chances. My reading of the polls is that although he has more sympathy from pan-blue voters, he is also attracting support from the independents and those undecided voters that Tsai needs to stand a chance of winning. My instinct is that most of the pan-blue voters that sympathize with Soong will see he has no chance of winning and end up voting for Ma. It is completely different from 2000 when no one really knew who was ahead between Lien Chan (連戰) and Soong in the last weeks. So what are the most likely outcomes?
We can rule out a repeat of the landslide KMT victories of 2008, just as we can rule out the DPP winning both elections. The KMT’s incumbency advantage and the bias in the electoral system make a DPP legislative majority unlikely. The two most likely outcomes are that Ma narrowly wins re-election and the KMT gets a narrow legislative majority or that Tsai wins narrowly and the KMT gets a narrow legislative majority. My view is still that the first is more likely, but that the second is still a genuine possibility at this stage.
What would be the implications of such results?
Although China would prefer the former, neither is particularly promising for its objectives. Whoever wins the presidency will face much stronger domestic constraints on developing external relations. This could lead to increasing impatience from China.
However, both outcomes could be beneficial to Taiwan’s democracy. During the past four years, Taiwan has demonstrated some features last seen in the late 1980s and early 1990s in that there were no real institutional checks and balances on the ruling party, as the KMT’s majority was simply overwhelming. This should make Ma more willing to seek domestic consensus and move more slowly on relations with China, hopefully refocusing on domestic issues. However, another more dangerous scenario is that we get a return to the antagonistic and polarized politics of the second Chen term.
If Tsai wins, she needs to be able to find a way to work with the KMT majority — something that Chen failed at miserably. My own suggestion would be to allow the KMT to form a coalition Cabinet that also included DPP members and independents. Such an operation would again require real cross-party negotiation and compromise. The DPP era showed that appointing a premier and Cabinet without legislative backing would be a recipe for disaster.
Dafydd Fell is a senior lecturer in Taiwan studies and deputy director of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.