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Taiwan: The Post-Election Political Scene

Jan 14, 2015

In the recent nine-in-one election, the Kuomintang (KMT) suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The newly elected officials will take office from 25 December 2014 onwards. The DPP’s significant victory in the election spurred its ambition to sweep the table in 2016, when Taiwan will elect its leader and legislative representatives. Both political parties are positioning themselves for a favorable outcome in two years from now. In the wake of the electoral turn of fortune, observers are closely watching how the KMT and the DPP will re-calibrate their mainland policy and relations with Washington.

Firstly, the election has made possible a big turnover of officials at the city/county level and immediately below it. Thirteen DPP candidates have been elected city/county chiefs, and they will be able to appoint a large number of bureau chiefs. This opens an important window for rising stars in the DPP. However, it remains to be seen whether the party, with a limited talent pool, will be able to fill so many vacancies with worthy personnel. If their candidates prove less than capable, the DPP will be punished in the next election.

Secondly, public opinion in Taiwan is generally optimistic that the DPP will carry the day in 2016. This will prompt the DPP leadership and its chairwoman, Tsai Ing-wen, to reassess their policies toward the United States and the mainland.

When the DPP was last in power during 2000-2008, it pursued “de jure independence”. The “referendum to join the United Nations in the name of Taiwan” pushed by Chen Shui-bian late in his “presidency” shook the fundamentals of cross-strait relations and US interests, putting cross-strait ties on high alert and Asia-Pacific security and US interests in the region in jeopardy. This brouhaha has earned the DPP the label of a regional “troublemaker”.

Since then, the DPP has been struggling to ditch this label – to little avail. The “Sunflower Student Movement” this March was, in effect, a socio-political campaign endorsed by Tsai Ing-wen. Of course, Wang Jin-pyng and Ker Chien-ming also lent their support. As a result of various machinations and obstructions, the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with the mainland was stalled in the “Legislative Yuan”. The stalemate made it hard for any bill to become law, significantly reducing Ma Ying-jeou’s ability to govern effectively and tarnishing Taiwan’s image as a “beacon of democracy”.

It has not escaped observers’ attention that this time, the voters gave the DPP more seats, not because it has delivered an impressive performance, but to punish the ruling KMT.

Even so, given the fact that the city/county elections have traditionally been a test balloon for the election of the leader of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen and her DPP rightly took heart from their victory. But they might draw the wrong lesson and see less imperative to readjust their cross-strait policy and rhetoric. If the DPP continues to relish its role as a “troublemaker” and does not subscribe to the “1992 Consensus”, cross-strait relations will again enter a period of uncertainty, much like the situation during the Chen Shui-bian administration.

This makes people crane to see whether Tsai Ing-wen will endorse the “1992 Consensus” and develop a coherent agenda for relations with the mainland – and, for that matter, with other regional players. The DPP does not have many people with an awful lot of diplomatic expertise, so it is important that they do it early, to create more certainty and reassure people. As of this writing, it remains a moot point whether Tsai will appreciate the importance of this and update the DPP’s policy and rhetoric toward the mainland.

Thirdly, despite its personnel reshuffle in the wake of electoral defeat, the KMT will continue to act as a stabilizer in cross-strait relations. The recent election must be seen for what it is. It is a judgment on the performance of city/county chiefs and legislators, not a referendum on cross-strait relations or the KMT’s mainland policy. It has not changed the fact that Ma Ying-jeou’s “no unification, no independence, no war” mantra serves US interests and presents no challenge to the mainland’s preference for the “peaceful development” of cross-strait relations.

Ma’s endorsement of the “1992 Consensus”, together with his rejection of independence, provides the basis for the peaceful development of cross-strait relations. Without the two, the rapprochement observed in recent years would be thrown into doubt. It can be expected that Ma’s successor in the party will continue to stand by the “1992 Consensus” and seek stability in cross-strait relations and the broader region.

Chu Li-luan, Ma’s replacement as KMT chairman, is well acquainted with Washington’s thinking. He knows US strategic goals in the Asia-Pacific and the importance of maintaining the peaceful development of cross-strait relations. He also has stable and effective channels of communication with the mainland. By accurately reflecting each side’s intentions, he can make cross-strait relations acceptable to Beijing and Washington as well as Taipei. However, it is said he has rejected the possibility of standing in the 2016 election. This leaves the field open, most likely to be filled by Wu Den-yih. At any rate, the KMT will continue to exercise considerable influence in cross-strait relations.

The “cabinet” reshuffle and Ma Ying-jeou’s resignation as KMT chairman were bombshells in Taiwanese politics. The KMT will have to find a replacement for Ma, the by-election for the legislature will begin soon and in the first half of 2015, the two parties will unveil their candidates for the top executive job. Taiwanese politics will revolve around the 2016 election. Both Beijing and Washington are keeping their fingers crossed that the people of Taiwan will elect a leader that supports stable cross-strait relations and peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.

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