Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide victory over Han Kuo-yu in Taiwan’s presidential elections on January 11 has at first glance given her and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a robust mandate to shake up cross-strait relations. Foreign media coverage of Saturday’s presidential election results raved of the victory being a “blow to Beijing,” raising questions of whether Tsai will shift her cross-strait policy in the next four years.
A palpable wariness of economic and political ties with China loomed large over the presidential election and was undoubtedly a main contributor to Tsai’s victory. Political unrest in Hong Kong, widespread opposition to the “one country, two systems” framework in Taiwan, and disgust with authoritarianism on the mainland all contributed to Tsai’s momentous win.
However, it is important to distinguish Tsai’s victory with other results of this month’s election. A closer look at the legislative election results and current party dynamics suggests a continuation of Tsai’s policy maintaining the current status quo. As large as Tsai’s win in the presidential race was, a unilateral change of cross-strait policy by Taipei is unlikely.
First, while Tsai’s win was record-breaking, the legislative races paint a different picture. The DPP lost seven seats in the Legislative Yuan (LY). While executive powers to conduct relations with the mainland rest with the president and the Executive Yuan, key cross-strait policy tools used by Tsai over the past four years have originated from the LY, such as the recently passed Anti-Infiltration Act. The president therefore requires support in the LY to pass hot-button cross-strait legislation. While Taiwanese voters overwhelmingly preferred Tsai to her beleaguered opponent and the DPP maintained a majority in the LY, the deep-green New Power Party and Ko Wen-je’s more centrist Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) chipped away at the DPP’s seat share, cutting at her governing and policy-directing abilities.
Second, the election results also demonstrated that the variance of cross-strait positions among political parties has narrowed, and Tsai’s current status-quo approach has become more mainstream. On the pro-China side of the spectrum, Han’s Kuomintang (KMT) moved its cross-strait position closer to the pan-greens’, largely due to the Hong Kong protests and widespread discomfort with Chinese positions on Taiwan. After the KMT’s chairman suggested a KMT administration may sign a peace treaty with the mainland after 2020, for example, Han walked back the statement and conditioned peace talks on China’s renunciation of the use of force.
On the independence-leaning left, Tsai’s fending off and nomination of deep-green primary challenger Lai Ching-te as vice president has coopted a vocal pro-independence force in Taiwan. Having Lai in the Presidential Palace makes it easier for Tsai to manage the deep-greens and resist political pressures to move closer to formal independence. Sun Zi has two sayings: “擒賊擒王” (defeat the enemy by capturing their chief) and “關門捉賊” (shut the door to catch the enemy). With the current KMT position relatively close to the DPP’s and Tsai having successfully coopted Lai, the political impetus for either pan-blues to push for closer China relations or the pan-greens to sharpen their anti-China rhetoric is very limited.
The election results, particularly in the LY, also portend a continuation of the cross-strait status quo because they have created a partisan environment where domestic policy questions will take precedent over “the China question.” Any ruling party has a finite capacity to commit to so many policy issues, and the legislative competition between Taiwan’s parties will renew focus on economic and governance issues in the foreseeable future.
There are early signs of this inward shift. The momentum gathered by Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je’s TPP will likely shift some legislative debate toward the party’s campaign focuses of “good governance” and “government transparency.” The TPP won five legislative seats, with 11.2% of the party-list vote, an impressive win for a newly formed party. Ko, a speculated 2024 presidential candidate, is a rising political force with national media attention and an outsized ability to influence national discourse. With its refusal to formally align itself on the pro-/anti-China spectrum, the TPP may draw the legislative agenda closer to less-traditional, non-cross-strait policy issues.
Additionally, the election’s split-ticket voting may force the DPP to reorient its strategy away to focus on local economic policies. Opposed to Tsai’s vote share of 57%, the DPP earned only 34% in the party-list vote in the LY, a decrease of 10% from 2016 and nearly tying with the KMT at 33%. Tsai’s landslide personal win was indicative of voters’ trust in her to conduct cross-strait relations. However, the DPP’s party-list vote share was indicative of its inability to maintain local support on domestic issues. In the shadow of the DPP’s stunning losses in the 2018 local elections largely fueled by grievances at Tsai’s domestic policies on pension and labor reform, party leaders will need to realign the party’s priorities to prevent similar blowback in 2022. With this motivation, the DPP will have to—or it had better—refocus its energy on delivering on local issues–continuing economic growth, slowing rising housing costs, addressing anger at pension reforms—all of which would restrict the DPP’s bandwidth to focus on cross-strait relations.
Despite a seemingly widespread perception in mainland China that Tsai will speed up her Taiwan independence campaign during her second term, Tsai’s administration faces considerable political constraints and will experience pressure to reorient national policy discussions toward domestic issues. Major unilateral change in the Tsai administration’s cross-strait policy is unlikely, and gradual recalibrations to cross-strait relations from either side will stay within the band of the status quo. In as tense a relationship as cross-strait relations, this “status quo ante electionem” may be welcome—at least reluctantly—by both sides and all parties interested in stability in Asia.