21.01.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Taiwan’s 2020 General Election


The Taiwanese general election was held on January 11, 2020 to elect the President and Vice President, as well as all 113 members of the unicameral Legislative Yuan. This is a key event, staged once in 4 years, in the political life of the island.

As fours years ago, the main outcome of the election was the convincing victory by incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, who is to hold the highest position in the nation for the second term. And this time around, she received approximately 20% more votes than her nearest rival, a better result than that in the previous election. Around 8.2 million Taiwanese cast their votes for Tsai Ing-wen (the total population of the island is 23 million) thus breaking the previous record set by Ma Ying-jeou in 2008 (a nominee of the rival Kuomintang (KMT) party) by 1 million.

In addition, the Democratic Progressive Party (with Tsai Ing-wen as its presidential candidate) won in the legislative election. It secured 61 legislative seats out of 113 (in comparison to 63 in 2016).

Han Kuo-yu from Kuomintang (+allied parties) came second in the presidential race (with the aforementioned difference in the number of votes). He is the mayor of the second most-populated city in Taiwan, Kaohsiung, with approximately 3 million inhabitants. During the primary held in July 2019, Han Kuo-yu was nominated to run for president by the Pan-Blue Coalition led by the Kuomintang (KMT).

Having noticeably lost to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) once again, the KMT improved its standing in the Legislative Yuan by securing 38 seats versus 36 in 2016.

By and large, the results of the recently held general election in Taiwan more or less correspond to those forecast by opinion polls, which had been carried out during the weeks leading up to it.

However, such an outcome was improbable only six months ago and even more so a year ago. At that time, a reasonable prediction was that there would be a tough battle between the key political rivals. And it did seem possible that the DPP could lose the presidential as well as the legislative elections.

We would like to remind our readers that a little over a year ago, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party suffered a devastating defeat during Taiwan’s local election held on 24 November 2018 (). The outcome was a surprise considering DPP’s triumph in the general election, held in January 2016, and its equally convincing win beforehand in the nation’s local elections that had taken place in November 2014.

In fact, Kuomintang’s convincing victory at the local level in November 2018 made it reasonable to draw parallels between the current and previous election cycles, and to, therefore, predict that this party as well as its presidential candidate would be successful in the upcoming general election. KMT’s success in Kaohsiung City (previously viewed as the stronghold of the DPP) in autumn 2018 gave further credence to the forecast. Han Kuo-yu, Kuomintang’s nominee, triumphed and became the mayor of this city and, subsequently, Tsai Ing-wen’s future rival in the presidential election in January 2020.

So what happened in the course of the year to not only prevent the prediction (based on comparison of election cycles) from coming true but to also yield an outcome in Taiwan’s latest election that directly contradicts the one expected on the cusp of 2018 and 2019?

There are two important factors to take into consideration. First of all, Tsai Ing-wen’s personal qualities played a role: during trying times (i.e. after an electoral defeat of her party) she behaved as a capable and decisive politician. She took full responsibility for what had happened and resigned as leader of the Democratic Progressive Party. And for some time afterwards, there was talk that she would not risk vying for this position again since the upcoming presidential election was only a year away.

However, as Tsai Ing-wen continued to fulfil her duties as President the following year, she managed to convince Taiwanese voters that she was the most suitable person to govern the island in times of hardship, first and foremost, in the foreign policy sphere.

For now, the island’s leadership does not publicly seek a fully independent status for the nation (for instance, the restoration of its membership in the United Nations), but, de facto, it is moving in this direction. At the same time, the country is aiming to safeguard all of the benefits it derives from having multifaceted economic ties with the PRC, developed in the last two decades.

Pursuing such a foreign policy course means that Tsai Ing-wen is on the same exact page as the leadership of PRC’s main geopolitical opponent, the United States. The strengthening of pro-American policies during the remainder of the presidential term seemed to have further convinced Taiwanese people of the world power’s support in the face of possible pressure from Beijing.

The second of the aforementioned factors (closely linked to the first) is to do with the well-known events in Hong Kong, which began in spring 2019 and are not fully over as yet. Commentators reporting on the results of Taiwan’s recent election unanimously agree on the importance of this particular factor. In the last half a year, “envoys” from particularly bullheaded Hong Kong protesters periodically visited the island (right before the general election, there were up to 50 such individuals in the nation at the same time) in order to inform Taiwanese voters about the “horrors of Communist pressure” exerted on the freedom-loving population of Hong Kong.

It appears that mass protests in response to fairly peripheral issues began near Taiwan at just the right time. And only a blind person could fail to notice the presence of “foreign elements” in them.

In addition, the U.S. Congress launched yet another lawmaking campaign for propaganda purposes (supported by western media outlets) on the situation in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), which more or less coincided with Taiwan’s general election.

However, in this particular case, the United States may have had an equally important reason for such actions, i.e. U.S. attempts to undermine the implementation of the Rebirth of the Silk Road initiative, a key geopolitical strategy devised by PRC leader Xi Jinping. After all, one of its main routes will pass through the territories of nations with predominantly Turkic-speaking populations.

Despite frequent criticism of the situation in XUAR voiced by the leadership of one such key nation, i.e. Turkey itself, its government is keen on participating in the New Silk Road projects. Raising the subject of various rights violations (in this particular case, in XUAR) plays the role of a “thorn in the side” of the framework of China–Turkey relations.

On the whole, the recently held general election in Taiwan is certainly a noteworthy event in the multifaceted game that the two world powers, the United States and China, are playing with each other. The way the situation in and around Taiwan develops will continue to be shaped by, first and foremost, the state of China–United States relations.

Still, the party affiliation of Taiwan’s leadership (determined in the course of the aforementioned election) will also play an important role in these processes.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”