At least Beijing would have seen this one coming. Back in November, when voters in Hong Kong’s local elections delivered a landslide to pro-democracy candidates, it seemed to come as a genuine surprise to the Chinese government. It had believed its own propaganda to the effect that the dissidents in Hong Kong were just a noisy minority.
But in Taiwan, with proper opinion polling, everyone knew what was going to happen in last Saturday’s election (see my preview here). And it did. Sitting president Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party, was re-elected for a second term by a crushing margin of more than two and a half million votes, winning 57.1% to 38.6% for her main opponent, the Kuomintang’s Han Kuo-yu.
That’s up one point on the share of the vote she got last time, although her margin is down somewhat due to the collapse in the vote of the third candidate, James Soong, who had 12.8% in 2016 but this time managed only 4.3%. Soong’s People First party is mostly just a personal vehicle; although he positions himself equally in opposition to both the “old” parties, in practice he is closer to the KMT, so it’s not surprising that his voters migrated there.
The DPP also held onto a clear majority in the legislature. It will have 61 of the 113 seats; that’s down seven on its 2016 result, mainly due to the five seats won by the new Taiwan People’s Party, which like the DPP is broadly centrist in orientation.
As in Hong Kong, the victory is being billed, reasonably enough, as a major rebuke for Beijing. The KMT was doing well in the polls until the Hong Kong crisis erupted; since then, Tsai and the DPP have gained popular support for their readiness to stand up to the mainland.
But there’s another difference from Hong Kong apart from its predictability. In Hong Kong, it was fair to describe the losing establishment candidates as “pro-Beijing”: while not necessarily Communists themselves, they were advocates of co-operating with the Chinese government and acquiescing in its control of Hong Kong.
The KMT, however, is not “pro-Beijing” in the same way. The co-operation that it supports is economic rather than political; it aims for a good working relationship with Beijing without compromising Taiwan’s practical independence. And when it was last in office, from 2008 to 2016, it pursued that policy with great success.
It may be that China’s increased assertiveness under Xi Jinping, of which the crisis in Hong Kong is a symptom, has rendered that policy unworkable. Saturday’s result certainly suggests that Taiwanese voters think this is not the time to be making any concessions to Beijing.