The last time that Taiwan’s independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a presidential election, it took an assassination attempt to swing the result. Hours before the 2004 election, DPP incumbent Chen Shui-bian was shot. The injury wasn’t life-threatening, but it spurred turnout from anti-Kuomintang (KMT) voters. Chen won by less than 30,000 votes, or a narrow 0.2% margin.
Subsequent investigations revealed that the assassin mysteriously drowned 10 days after the shooting. Chen himself would go straight from the president’s residence to jail on corruption charges after the KMT regained power in 2008.
Events were a lot less dramatic last week. The DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, who led in the opinion polls for months, won a landslide victory and is now set to become the island’s first female president.
“Everything goes as expected. This has to be the most boring presidential election ever in Taiwan,” Hong Kong’s Singtao Daily lamented.
In fact, one of the more emotive issues in the last days of campaigning was how Chou Tzu-Yu, a 16 year-old singer, had felt forced to apologise publicly for waving a Taiwan flag (see here for more on the fiasco).
Only 66.3% of 12.45 million eligible voters chose to vote, the lowest number since the Taiwanese were first allowed to pick their leader in 1996 (in 2004 turnout was 80%).
The KMT – the incumbent party of government – was hardest hit by the lower turnout. The China Times noted that more than a million blue camp (i.e. KMT) supporters seem not to have bothered voting, and even more switched to the green camp (the DPP). Although Tsai managed to gain about 800,000 more votes than she received in 2012 (when Ma Ying-jeou won re-election), the KMT lost nearly 3 million votes this time around.
Tsai’s party won 68 of the 113 seats, meaning that the KMT won’t be the largest party in parliament for the first time since 1949.
Why did it suffer such heavy losses? One of the independence-leaning Taiwanese newspapers suggest that the party had simply been getting too close to the mainland, and that proved a turn-off for younger Taiwanese. Indeed, the soon-to-step-down Ma has been dubbed the most China-friendly president in Taiwan’s history. During his period in office he signed more than 20 agreements with the mainland, including a 2014 trade package that backfired politically when hundreds of students stormed the government’s headquarters in protest.
Of course, China’s state media rebuffed the notion that the KMT’s loss signalled a rejection of closer ties. “The defeat of the ruling Kuomintang in the election was caused by internal issues such as administrative lapses, rising unemployment and the widening wealth gap, not the party’s mainland policy,” the China Daily claimed in an editorial.
In her victory speech Tsai promised a government that is steadfast in protecting the island’s sovereignty. Yet she also promised a “stable and predictable relationship with China” and appealed to Beijing’s leaders to look for ways for the two governments to interact “based on dignity and reciprocity”.
Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office insisted that the election results would have no impact on the so-called “1992 consensus”, a tacit understanding between the KMT and the Chinese government that both sides of the Taiwan Strait acknowledge there is “one China”, with each side having its own interpretation of what that means.
Xinhua, meanwhile, threatened that any move by the island towards independence would “poison” Taiwan’s outlook.
Without “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”, it warned, Tsai’s promise to help poorer Taiwanese “will be as useless as looking for fish in a tree”.
The CPPCC Post (a sister publication of the People’s Daily) was more open in speculating that rougher times could be ahead.
“The American presidential election will also take place later this year. The cross-Strait relation is likely to enter a very turbulent phase should both women [Hillary Clinton and Tsai] become presidents.”
(That may not be massively far off the mark: see WiC242 for our review of Clinton’s book, detailing her views on China.)
© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.
Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.
The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.