2020 Taiwanese election: out with the old in with the new?

Published on 9 September 2019

On 11 January 2020 Taiwan will hold its seventh Presidential election. The election is surrounded by a changing political landscape, while the two traditional parties are still dominated by the pro-unification versus pro-independence debate. Current President Tsai Ing-Wen, a pro-Washington candidate, has won the nomination for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), facing off a severe challenge during the party primaries. In the face of a sluggish economy she stands to rally around pragmatic policies to ensure she is not the first Taiwanese president who fails to win a second term. The KMT (Kuomintang) candidate Han Kuo-yu – an anti-elite politician with pro Beijing leanings – seems set to exploit Tsai’s problems with the electorate. He is, however, having struggles of his own from former primary competitor Terry Gou Tai-ming, who has yet to endorse Han. Moreover, both parties have to deal with the presence of hugely popular independent politician Ko Wen-je. Yet to officially announce his candidacy, his popularity with voters, especially the young, reflects the changing attitude to the polarisation of Taiwanese politics.

Uncompromising Tsai

Emerging as the internal winner on 19 June 2019 after three months of challenging debate within the party, Tsai beat her opponent and former Premier William Lai by 8.2 percentage points in the DPP primaries. Leading the DPP into the 2020 election, it looks likely she will keep her firm line on China while continuing to take an increasingly pro-US stance. Her speech at Columbia University on 13 July 2019, where she spoke positively of US-Taiwan cooperation and discussed at length Taiwan’s road to democratisation, lends support to that idea. 

While this status-quo position has appealed to certain demographics across Taiwan over the last four years, a series of less successful domestic policies has caused her popularity to decline. Exemplified in the DPP’s disastrous 2018 local elections, voters and supporters, have become disenfranchised by her weak management over labor laws, pensions laws and marriage equality. These missteps forced her to resign as party chair – a position she held at the same time as the Presidency. 

Tarnished by these domestic issues and the challenge to her rule during the primaries, Tsai has done well to return to a position where she is in contention just four months before the elections. However, she is still seen by swing voters to be vehemently in the pro-sovereignty camp – also known as the Pan-Green coalition – with little ambition to engage in economic prosperity across the strait. It may suit her be more pragmatic about cross-strait relations and disregard her focus on maintaining the status quo. In a recent public opinion poll, 50% of the Taiwanese electorate support restarting cross-strait relations compared to 20% who oppose it. 

Despite this though, a new election poll conducted by TPOF, in a race between Han and Tsai, saw Tsai gain 45% of the vote compared to 40.1% for Han. However, with polls fluctuating daily, if Tsai continues to focus on issues surrounding sovereignty over prosperity this may hand over the initiative to Han Kuo-yu.

Han’s fans?

Han Kuo-yu, the Kaohsiung Mayor, won the KMT nomination with 44% of the vote, beating out Foxxcon founder and billionaire Terry Gou Tai-ming. An anti-elite candidate, he has heavy leanings towards Beijing with plans to resume positive cross-strait relations. His campaign slogan of ‘Taiwan safe, people rich’ emphasises his commitment to end an era of cold politics with China and embrace more bilateral relations.

First elected to office in 1992 he emerged as a significant force in Taiwanese politics in 2018, winning the Mayoral election in Kaohsiung – a city that had been dominated by the DPP for the past 20 years. Helping to claim 14 other key cities in the local elections he rode a wave of popularity that saw him emerge with 1.2 million ‘Han fans’. Twinning this momentum with his pragmatic policies over cross-strait relations and pension reform has placed Han as a favourite amongst the bloc of parties who favour further integration with Beijing – known as the Pan-Blue coalition – as well as segments of independent voters in the lead up to 2020.

However, as with Tsai, Han has his own problems too. Without the endorsement of primary competitor Terry Gou Tai-ming, there is concern surrounding the party that an independent run by Gou, by himself or on a ticket with Ko Wen-je, will split the KMT vote. Furthermore, experts suggest that while support has grown amongst retired teachers, veterans and government workers as a result of Tsai’s pensions reforms, Han needs to broaden his base significantly in order to win. According to a recent poll conducted by TVBS, in a race between Tsai and Han, 32% of 20-29 year olds would vote for Han, compared to 65% for Tsai. With the potential of further candidates entering the race this figure could only get worse for the KMT candidate. 

While his nomination offers a contrasting choice for Taiwan, setting up the election to be dominated by the Pan-Green versus Pan-Blue debate, many voters appear tired by this issue., Independent politician Ko Wen-je appears to be moving past that narrative, tapping into something that the other parties may be missing.

Out with the old in with the new?

Ko Wen-je broke a 20 year tradition in 2014 with his election to Taipei’s Mayoral office. He won the race on the definitive slogan ‘Beyond Blue and Green’, despite support from the DPP. Usually a safe KMT seat, the message deeply resonated with the people of Taipei, and he won emphatically. Now in 2019, despite not officially declaring his candidacy, his mere presence is causing significant concern within both parties.

Ko’s creation of the Taiwan People’s Party has elevated that concern. In a statement, Ko argued that this party will offer Taiwanese people ‘another choice’. Many observers see this as the steps leading up to his candidacy announcement, with polls suggesting that both of the leading candidates vote share would be affected. On the one hand Ko has tapped into the DPP’s youth vote who largely distrust traditional party politics. On the other hand, the potential of Ko and Terry Gou Tai-mingjoining together on a ticket would disrupt Han’s Pan-Blue vote. A poll conducted by ETtoday on 9 July 2019 saw Ko gaining 16.5% of the vote, Han 38.4% and Tsai 33%. Another recent poll has seen Ko gain 27.2%, Han 29.6% and Tsai 34.4%. This shows that Ko’s momentum will continue to affect both parties vote share in the coming months.

In terms of actual policies Ko has consistently emphasised the need for beliefs to take precedent over policies. In fact, he has remained quite ambiguous on any specific domestic reforms or foreign policy initiatives he would undertake. Instead his pure insistence on being different from the two parties, focusing on what he calls ‘White Force’ – moving past Green and Blue narratives – has led to his huge popularity with voters. If he continues to tap into the anger and dissatisfaction with the old established elite, he may find success in the upcoming election without the need to focus on specific ideas.

However, Ko has come under criticism too. Despite trying to take a different line on the issue surrounding cross-strait relations, he has often fallen on the side of China. Describing China as “one family” that “share a common destiny” has seen him attacked from those within the DPP. To keep his support amongst the youth, who largely oppose unification, he must be careful to emphasise the improvement of cross-strait relations for economic prosperity while ensuring sovereignty and the status quo for Taiwan, especially with Hong Kong being at the forefront of people’s minds at the moment. Moreover, on a more practical basis, despite the creation of a new political party he lacks any substantial political networks outside of Taipei. Without any direct connection to people, when it comes to election time, most may resort back to what they know. 

The changing landscape

It is difficult to predict how this changing political landscape will play out in the 2020 election. In line with many trends across the world, especially the US, it appears Taiwanese voters have become tired of the polarisation of the traditional parties. While some voters will embrace this polarisation and continue to vote for the DPP or the KMT, others may look for new avenues. With the economy slowing down and relations with China at their worst for decades, a more pragmatic option appeals to the electorate. Ko Wen-je, despite not officially declaring, appears to offer that change. The next four months will determine his suitability for the presidency beyond merely being a voice in opposition to the two established parties. Until then it will remain unclear whether Taiwan will decide to vote out the old and bring in the new.

Author: Matthew Jones, Junior Researcher, European Institute for Asian Studies