TAIPEI – Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s pro-independence leader, has just over a year to win back public support if she wants to avoid going down in history as the island’s first one-term president.
Her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered a resounding loss to the China-friendly Kuomintang on Saturday. The scale of the defeat was far greater than forecast, with her party losing seven cities and counties of the 13 they held — including its traditional bastions of Kaohsiung and Yilan.
Now with just 14 months to go until the presidential election in January 2020, Tsai faces a challenge to turn things around. Although she resigned as head of the DPP after the election loss, Tsai faces no obvious challengers from within who might stop her from seeking a second term as president.
“This result demands a response from Tsai, and the obvious change would be to emphasize the DPP’s strengths and the things that got Tsai in,” said Jonathan Sullivan, director of Nottingham University’s China Policy Institute. “Tsai has made a liberal, progressive society a big part of her appeals to the rest of the world to support Taiwan in juxtaposition to an increasingly repressive China.”
Saturday’s election saw a “blue wave” sweep Taiwan in a resurgence of Kuomintang after Tsai comprehensively ousted the party from power in 2016. Kuomintang promotes better ties — and eventual unification — with China. A return to power for the party would be seen as a welcome development by the authorities in Beijing, which have frozen all direct contact with Tsai after she declined to accept it’s claim that Taiwan belongs to “one China.”
Still, Tsai’s caution regarding key domestic issues such as labor reforms and same-sex marriage — rather than her dealings with China — were seen as key causes for the DPP’s defeat. In a number of referendums held at the same time as Saturday’s elections, voters also rejected marriage equality for same-sex couples and a proposal for athletes to compete under the name “Taiwan” rather than the current moniker, “Chinese Taipei.”
“The elections this time did not have much to do with unification with China or Taiwan independence,” said Austin Wang, a political scientist at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “What voters cared about was penalizing the DPP and Tsai Ing-wen.”
The star of the Kuomintang’s revival was Han Kuo-yu, who was elected mayor of Kaohsiung City — a seat the DPP has held since 1998. The pugnacious former lawmaker was given little hope of succeeding in one of the DPP’s southern strongholds, even by some in his own party.
But a combination of Han’s plain campaign language, his blunt assessments of Kaohsiung’s ills and his promise to bring an economic boom through better ties with China won the city’s residents over, according to Kaohsiung-based radio host and political commentator Chen Tzu-yu.
Some of Tsai’s backers attributed the loss to widespread dissatisfaction with her leadership. Her efforts to cut retired public servants’ pensions angered Kuomintang voters, who make up a large portion of Taiwan’s civil service, while DPP supporters said she did not do enough to pursue promised reforms or support progressive referendum proposals.
“The electoral results did not mean Taiwanese people have chosen to become closer to China,” said Lai Chung-chiang, head of civil group Economic Democracy Union, which was heavily involved in 2014 protests that thwarted former Kuomintang President Ma Ying-jeou’s attempt to deepen Taiwan’s trade ties with China. “Rather, the outcome marked voters’ dissatisfaction with President Tsai Ing-wen’s governance.”
To win back support, several analysts said Tsai should move closer to the U.S., which sells weapons to Taiwan to defend against forceful unification by the mainland.
“She will need to express clearly that Taiwan is happy to bolster cooperation with the U.S., while she also needs to make it clear that Taiwan is not trying to lock horns with China” said Jou Yi-cheng, who was once a speechwriter for former President Chen Shui-bian, a DPP member. “Taiwan doesn’t deny its cultural links with China, but instead it is championing the universal values of freedom and democracy.”
Nottingham University’s Sullivan said Tsai should take an even tougher stance on China.
“It is time to take the shackles off,” he said. “Caution in cross-strait policy has delivered nothing — China won’t work with her and has really stepped up its pressure across the board, so its difficult to see what Tsai loses by pursuing the more robust path the pro-Taiwan base demands.”