Tsai Ing-wen has led the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to victory in the recent Taiwanese “presidential” and legislative elections. For the first time in history, the DPP has secured both administrative and legislative powers in Taiwan, winning both the top executive position and a majority of the 22 counties/cities. Though significant, this development has not altered the political equilibrium in Taiwan.
However, Tsai Ing-wen has so far avoided any direct reference to the “1992 Consensus”. This, together with the power grab within the DPP and the fluid state of public opinion on the island, creates considerable uncertainty for relations across the Taiwan Strait.
First, the DPP’s attitude toward the “1992 Consensus” holds the key to the continuing stability and peaceful development of cross-Strait relations.
After the election results were announced, Tsai Ing-wen told the press that she seeks a mutually acceptable way of interacting with the mainland on the basis of equal dignity and that there will be no provocations or surprises. This statement is at once reassuring and troubling, for she left no doubt that Taiwan’s democratic system, “national identity” and “international space” must receive full respect and any attempt to “suppress” them would destabilize cross-Strait relations.
Through its pro-independence Constitution and the Resolution on Taiwan’s Future, the DPP has effected a paradigm shift. In its eyes, Taiwan is an independent, sovereign country whose name is the “Republic of China”; any change to this status quo must be put to a vote by the 23 million Taiwanese people in a referendum. This leaves little ambiguity and no room for compromise in the form of respective interpretations.
In this context, any avoidance of endorsing the “1992 Consensus” can only be interpreted by Beijing to mean a denial of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and hence plunge mainland-DPP ties below the freezing point. Such a scenario would seriously erode the fragile political foundation of cross-Strait relations and lead to a detour or even reversal of the positive interactions between the mainland and Taiwan in the last few years. Cross-Strait relations would need to brace for a rocky period.
Second, the relations between Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP holds the key to the future policies of the Taiwan authorities.
The DPP is riddled by factions. Its internal contradictions were papered over during the campaign. Now that it has realized the goal of returning to power, these will be laid bare and affect Tsai Ing-wen’s ability to deliver on her campaign promises.
Of the 68 “Legislative Yuan” seats won by DPP candidates, a third are to be occupied by members of the “New Tide” faction, which may determine who will head up the “Legislative Yuan”. Already, Su Chia-chyuan, Ker Chien-ming and Chen Ming-wen have shown interest in this position, amidst a divergence of views as to how the “President of the Legislative Yuan” should be elected. It is a moot point whether Tsai Ing-wen will be able to balance factions and interests inside her own party to have a like-minded colleague at the helm of the “Legislative Yuan” to support her policy agenda.
And this is not the only one of Tsai Ing-wen’s headaches. How will she interact with the district forces, particularly the southern forces led by Lai Ching-te and Chen Chu? Is there a looming clash between Tsai, who is expected to seek re-election in four years, and the “new generation” in TPP who desire to make their presence known?
In the 2016 election, the New Power Party (NPP) emerged as the third most-significant party. This has not come as a surprise, but the convincing victory has greatly boosted the confidence of the NPP, which had been considered Tsai’s “boy scouts” and the DPP’s junior partner in the Pan-Green camp. Like the DPP of the past, NPP has deep ties to the communities and high ambition. It is expected that it will seek to revive Caucus Consultations in the “Legislative Yuan” and carve out a bigger role for itself. This will almost inevitably bump up against the DPP’s desire to dominate the political scene.
Third, the fluid state of public opinion will continue to shape Taiwanese politics.
The 2016 election reveals an important shift in Taiwan, from the age-old Blue vs. Green to a greater focus on key topics. For sure, owing to Ma Ying-jeou’s reform of the Kuomintang (KMT) and Tsai Ing-wen’s transformation of the DPP, the political “ground rules” have been in flux for quite some time. Of greater consequence, however, is the increasingly independent and diverse mainstream public opinion in a post-industrialized society in Taiwan. Traditional party loyalties are loosening. The votes coughed up by the KMT in this election did not go the DPP’s way but to “the third force”. The DPP’s additional votes are due to changes in the demographic structure and the “mobilization” effect of the flag incident involving Taiwanese singer Chou Tzu-yu on the eve of the election. They do not suggest a broadening of the DPP base.
The fluidity of public opinion in Taiwan has to do with the shakeup of traditional societal structure, the rise of the younger generation and the enabling effect of the social media, among other factors. As a result, the electorate has less and less faith in traditional political parties, whose role as a conduit of public opinion is increasingly challenged by a civil society that is ever more suspicious of the political establishment and its authority.
In short, the 2016 election shook things up in a big way. It foreshadows a deep transformation of Taiwanese politics, which in turns has ramifications for cross-Strait relations and the Asia-Pacific region. Exactly what these ramifications will be, only time can tell.