Taiwan’s first female President: a vote for independence?

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AFP Photo/Sam Yeh

In early January of this year, Tsai Ing-wen, 59, was elected to be Taiwan’s first female President. A member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), she received 56.1% of votes and surpassed her main opponent, Eric Chu, from Kuomintang. It is only for the second time in Taiwan’s history that the leader is not affiliated with the Kuomintang party: in 2000 and 2004 another member of DPP, Chen Shui-bian, was elected as President of the island nation, challenging more than 50 years of long authority of Kuomintang party. In 2016, DPP also won legislative elections, becoming the biggest party in the Taiwanese Parliament with 68 seats, 44% of entire Legislative Yuan. 

The results of Taiwanese elections attracted massive attention from around the world due to various reasons. Some of the reasons include: 1) The fact that this is only the third time in history when transition of power had occurred peacefully; 2) It is only the 6thelection held since the end of the authoritarian regime; 3) And the first ever female head of the state to have been elected in the whole Eastern Asian region. What is also widely discussed, are the political attitudes of the newly elected President regarding sovereignty of Taiwan. The DPP, in general, advocates for independence of Taiwan, preservation of its own national identity, and political system, which goes in controversy with China-led course on political unification of both countries. Consequently, in her first speech as a President, Tsai Ing-wen argued for respectfulness towards Taiwanese “democratic system, national identity and international space”, but also – for preservation of “status-quo” in relationships with China. Election of Tsai Ing-wen was already referred in the “Diplomat” as “Beijing’s Worst Nightmare.” Other newspapers and journals also raised concerns regarding the future of the Chinese-Taiwanese relations, as well as about possibility of Taiwan to become a new “flashpoint” of confrontation in Eastern Asia. Nevertheless, it seems that the relationship between China and Taiwan are to remain stable and mostly peaceful.

Why did Kuomintang lose in the 2016 elections?

The previous President of Taiwan, member of Kuomintang party, Ma Ying-jeou, took the office in 2008, with following successful reelection in 2012. Ma Ying-jeou, born in mainland China, is a major proponent of strengthening economic ties with China. One of his initiatives was to introduce the first direct charter flights between China and Taiwan. Furthermore, in 2010, he signed Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with China, aimed to raise bilateral trade, investment, and tourism sectors in economic relations of both countries. Another bold move included meetings with governmental officials of mainland China, including the Secretary General, – first ever since separation of mainland China and Taiwan.

All the taken steps towards rapprochement with China from Ma Ying-jeou were met with huge criticism in Taiwan, sparkling numerous protests in the country. In 2008, 500 thousand people participated in the “1025 Protest” against Ma’s policy in favor of China as well as against the visit of the Chairman of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (mostly Beijing-based organization, promoting reunification of both Chinese states). Protests also sparkled during the signing of an economic agreement with China (the “517 protest”). The largest protests occurred in 2015, following a decision to sign the “Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement” with China. The participants of the “Sunflower Student Movement”, mostly students from Taipei, occupied several governmental buildings, including the legislative chamber. As a result of protests, the review of the trade agreement was postponed.

DPP’s criticism against Ma’s presidency centered around giving China too many instruments of influence by significantly strengthening economic ties and holding meetings with China’s highest politicians. Despite the path of enhanced cooperation with mainland China, the previous government of Taiwan failed to prevent an economic downturn: for instance, in 2015, growth of GDP was only 1% – which is too low for an economy, which trespassed annual growth rate of 10% in 2010. Therefore, the Ma government was unable neither to stabilize the slowing economy nor get any significant benefits from trade agreements with China. In turn, Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the significantly pro-Taiwanese party that agitates for its independence and unique political system, has not noticed to express any radical ideas regarding Taiwan’s independence. So the Taiwanese people who voted for her might expect to have a leader that will eventually strengthen national identity without critically destabilizing relations between Taiwan and mainland China. Another appealing factor of Tsai Ing-wen in the eyes of the Taiwanese people – are her Taiwanese roots. In contrast with Ma, accused of being an agent of PRC because of his Chinese roots, Tsai Ing-wen and her parents were born on the island.

What is next for Taiwan?

Despite the fact that the major attention was focused on Taiwanese-Chinese relations since the election of the new President, it is unlikely to expect that the relations with China will remain to be the main concern. Stagnating economy, lowering salaries, growing unemployment, and increasing housing prices are yet to be addressed by the new President of Taiwan. And since the left-wing DPP holds the majority in both Parliament and government, it is possible to expect a more socially oriented economic policy. Dealing with economic problems would be less likely without preserving economic ties with mainland China: trade between the two nations already accounts for 40% Taiwan’s exports.

Even though it seems that relations of China and Taiwan are not very warm at the moment, the new President did not perform any controversial moves such as visiting disputed islands or proclaiming the need for an independent Taiwan. Furthermore, her association with a pro-independent party as well as her Taiwanese roots may be useful for China to continue the rapprochement with Taiwan: for the Taiwanese people that would seem to be less controversial, as it was with Chinese-born previous President. As for the Taiwanese, it is hard to expect the process of enhancing economic ties to slow down, especially, when the economy of Taiwan is in such trouble. 

Written by Zhamilya Mukasheva

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