Taiwan elects first female president: A step toward independence from China?

Taiwan's election of its first female president is groundbreaking. But how insistent will Tsai Ing-wen really be on breaking away from mainland China?

Damir Sagolj/Reuters
DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen waves to supporters as they celebrate her election victory at the party's headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan January 16, 2016.

Taiwan has elected its first female president.

Tsai Ing-wen, who leads the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won 56 percent of the vote Saturday, compared to her main opponent’s 31 percent. Her party also gained control of the legislature for the first time.

The real significance of this victory may yet lie in the impact it has on self-ruled Taiwan’s relationship with mainland China: the DPP is the main pro-independence party.

“The results today tell me the people want to see a government that is willing to listen to the people, that is more transparent and accountable and a government that is more capable of leading us past our current challenges and taking care of those in need,” Ms. Tsai told reporters, according to the New York Times.

Tsai becomes only the second member of her party to hold the presidential office. The DPP did so under Chen Shui-bian from 2000 to 2008.

The 2016 election was contested on issues surrounding Taiwan’s relationship with mainland China, government transparency, social justice, and the economy.

Tsai, who earned advanced degrees in the United States and the United Kingdom, promised a “new era”, ending the “old politics of intimidation and confrontation”, reported the Los Angeles Times.

Her main opponent, Eric Chu of the Nationalists, said he had “disappointed everyone”, as he acknowledged the results. “We lost. The Nationalists have been defeated.

Tsai now finds herself in one of Asia’s most delicate and challenging positions, balancing the democratic will of the Taiwanese people and the aspirations of mainland China, which makes no secret of its desire to absorb Taiwan.

The stakes are high, with hundreds of Chinese missiles trained on the island and the United States having undertaken commitments regarding Taiwan’s defense.

Yet Tsai is not an ardent advocator of independence, in spite of her party’s charter calling for a break from the mainland. She strikes a more nuanced position on the issue.

While she makes no pretence of supporting the “one China” doctrine embraced by both the mainland and the Nationalist opposition, she has given assurances that she intends to uphold the “status quo” with China, as The Christian Science Monitor reported.

This is a marked shift from the previous stint of DPP power, when the pro-independence line was aggressively pursued, to the irritation of China and the discomfort of the United States.

Not only does a more balanced approach represent prudence, but it also reflects the will of the Taiwanese people: Centrist voters, who constitute a far bigger portion of the electorate than strident advocates of independence, have no desire to undo the current modus operandi with China.

Indeed, 70 percent of Taiwan’s population support self-rule without official independence, according to a 2014 government poll.

So, what does Tsai's win indicate?  

In her victory speech, Tsai urged both sides (China and Taiwan) to show “dignity and reciprocity,” and she vowed to be a force for peace and stability in the region, reported the BBC.

As for China, although searches for Tsai’s name and “Taiwan elections” were blocked on the Twitter-like service Weibo Saturday evening, the state news agency Xinhua insisted Beijing would not interfere in Taiwan’s election and would focus instead on cross-strait relations.

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