Taiwan's victorious new leaders eye change – and continuity

Taiwan's long-governing pro-Beijing party is out of power. But for now, neither China nor the newly ascendant opposition are looking to shake up cross-strait relations.

Wally Santana/AP
Supporters of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party, DPP, presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, cheer as she declares victory in the presidential election in Taipei, Taiwan, on Saturday.

The stunning sweep by Taiwan's opposition in winning the presidency and a majority of legislative seats in the weekend's election marks a "new normal" for the island's domestic politics, and opens the way for a more equitable but uncertain relationship with China.

Both President-elect Tsai Ing-wen and Beijing appear cautious about disrupting the rapprochement achieved under President Ma Ying-jeou, whose long-dominant Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) worked closely with the Chinese Communist Party during the past decade. But the benefits of the KMT's China policy were not shared or substantial enough to overcome Taiwanese discontent and a surge in civic activism by Taiwanese youth.

Now leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are rethinking their agenda. "Each side is waiting for the other to throw the first stone," says Su Tzen-ping, head of New Talk, an independent news website.

“What we're seeing in this election is the new normal of democratic politics of Taiwan,” says Asian affairs expert Joseph Wong of the University of Toronto. This has “fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship across the Taiwan Strait” by raising the profile of Taiwan's democratic institutions and practices.

“What's most important in Taiwan is to recognize that its democracy is its major leverage and major bargaining chip” in its relations with China and the world. 

Opposition at a high point

Supporters of President-elect Tsai, who will be Taiwan's first woman president when she is inaugurated in May, see her victory as a new beginning for the island republic, which has been dominated by the KMT for seven decades.

With the KMT pushed completely out of power for the first time, the reins of government will pass to a strongly pro-Taiwan party that waged its campaign on a center-left agenda of progressive economic policies, social justice, and greater accountability, but under-played differences with Beijing.

“Together we have accomplished a great task for Taiwan,” Ms. Tsai told supporters in her victory speech before tens of thousands of supporters on Jan. 16. “We have completed the third transition of political power in Taiwan’s democratic history. And through our actions, we want to tell the world, once again, that Taiwan equals democracy and democracy equals Taiwan.”

After a smooth, well-run campaign, Tsai won 56 percent of the vote, easily besting her nearest rival, the KMT's Eric Chu, who took 31 percent of the 12 million ballots cast. In the legislature, Tsai's Democratic Progress Party (DPP) won 68 seats for a solid majority in the 113-seat body, giving the DPP control over two branches of government for the first time. Five legislative seats were also won by the youthful New Power Party, with heavy metal rock star Freddy Lim and human rights lawyer Huang Guo-chang both defeating veteran KMT legislators.

The DPP's dominance in all of Taiwan's major population centers underscores a growing consensus on the island that its political identity is separate from China, even though the government currently exists within the framework of the Constitution of the Republic of China as designed by the KMT and imported from the Chinese mainland in 1949.

Waiting for the other side to blink

While Tsai has not accepted Beijing's “one China” doctrine, she has also not explicitly rejected it, says Lai I-chung of Taiwan Think Tank, a policy research institute friendly to the DPP. Tsai's moderate tone has reassured many critics and skeptics at home and abroad that the transition of political power need not be disruptive for its commercial and social ties across the Taiwan Strait, even though some Taiwanese remain anxious about how China will respond to the new DPP government.

“Maintaining the 'status quo' is my commitment to the people of Taiwan and the international community,” Tsai told supporters on election night. “When I manage cross-strait relations in the future, it will be based on proactive communication. There won't be provocation and there won’t be surprises.”

Observers say this message, which she has been sending for the past year, has made it more difficult for China to lodge protests against her. On election night, China's official New China News Agency laid out Beijing's position, saying that "we are willing to maintain the common political foundation, the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, and peace and stability across the Strait, and jointly create a bright future for the revival of the Chinese nation.”

The “common political foundation” includes adhering to the so-called “1992 consensus” in which the two ruling parties allegedly agreed that there is only “one China” that includes Taiwan. The statement also said that Beijing was ready to work with “all political parties and groups” that recognize that Taiwan is part of China. Lai noted that the statement was neither harsh nor threatening, especially compared with official statements made when former DPP President Chen Shui-bian was elected more than a decade ago.

Tsai's top advisers emphasize that she has avoided confrontation with “big brother” across the Taiwan Strait as well as with the rival KMT and resurgent new parties at home.

“The future DPP government is going to be a very moderate force here in Taiwan, very responsible and predictable and very consistent in international relations and domestic policies,” said Joseph Wu, DPP secretary-general. “There will be substantial consultations with all sides.”

Unresolved issues

International observers say the election was free and mostly fair. The vote also underscored that well-run competitive elections can be a force for peaceful change and political stability in East Asia.

Sim Tze Tzin, a Malaysian lawmaker from the opposition People's Justice Party who observed the polls, said the election was an inspiration for Malaysia as it faces serious problems of electoral corruption and fraud.

“Many parts of Southeast Asia are looking up to Taiwan as an example of free and fair elections,” he said. “Taiwanese should be very proud.”

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