Election preview: Taiwan

Taiwan goes to the polls tomorrow, in presidential and legislative elections that look like being rather less exciting than was expected a year or so ago.

President Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party, was elected four years ago with 56.1% of the vote, 25 points clear of her main rival. She is now seeking a second term. Voting is first-past-the-post in a single nationwide ballot.

Tsai’s opponent is the mayor of Kaohsiung (Taiwan’s second city), Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT) or Chinese Nationalist Party. The KMT is basically centre-right while the DPP is liberal-centrist, but the more salient difference is that the KMT is more inclined to co-operation with mainland China while the DPP is in principle committed to formal Taiwanese independence.

That means that the government in Beijing much prefers the KMT, and it enjoyed a good relationship with Taiwan the last time it was in power, from 2008 to 2016. Since then things have become more tense, although the more assertive approach from China’s Xi Jinping is probably more to blame than anything Tsai has done.

Whether for that or other reasons, Taiwanese voters delivered a major rebuke to the DPP in local elections held just over a year ago. And down to the middle of last year, Tsai trailed badly in the opinion polls, with the KMT consistently holding a lead of more than ten points.

Then something happened, and it’s not hard to guess what. The KMT vote started to drop off just as the extradition crisis blew up in Hong Kong, and it continued to decline as the situation there worsened in the second half of the year. By December, Tsai was ahead by something like 30 points, even more than her landslide margin from 2016.

Since Beijing’s aim is to incorporate Taiwan as essentially a larger version of Hong Kong, events in that territory are always going to be carefully watched in Taiwanese politics. But it was made more acute on this occasion by the fact that the original excuse offered for the proposed extradition law was a murder committed by a Hong Kong resident in Taiwan.

Despite that, the Taiwanese government opposed the bill and supported the Hong Kong protests – partly due to fears that extradition could be used as a backdoor way of allowing Taiwanese to be sent to the mainland. And in the atmosphere of crisis, voters rallied to the government, and specifically to the DPP with its more uncompromising attitude to Beijing.

Whether that makes strategic sense in the longer term is another question. The KMT’s conciliatory approach paid major economic dividends for Taiwan, without obviously giving up anything of significance in terms of sovereignty. But of course the beauty of democracy is that Taiwanese voters have the option to change their minds: if, in four years time, they think the KMT had the better of the argument, they can give them another try.

The 2016 election also gave the DPP a clear majority in the legislature, with 44.1% of the vote and 68 of the 113 seats. Voting is by an “additional member” system, with a combination of single-member and proportional seats, including six seats reserved for indigenous members. If the polls are right, there is unlikely to be much change.

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