Taiwan poll defeat was a message from the electorate for the DPP, but will Tsai Ing-wen heed what they said?
- President played independence and pro-US cards – she lost
- Business relations with mainland take on whole new complexion
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen will have to review her policies in running the self-ruled island, including the highly sensitive cross-strait strategy watched closely by Beijing and Washington, following the crushing electoral defeat of her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party over the weekend, analysts said.
Equally significant was whether she should continue to heavily rely on the United States after both the so-called pro-independence and the US cards failed to turn the tide in the local polls, they said.
The DPP lost seven of the 13 cities and counties, including two special municipalities – Taichung and Kaohsiung – in Saturday’s nine-in-one local government elections, while the opposition Kuomintang scored 15 cities and counties, including three municipalities, in a result that silenced the political pundits.
The fall of Kaohsiung has been seen by the DPP as humiliating as it has long been a traditional stronghold for the pro-independence camp.
The surprising outcome prompted Tsai to resign as chairwoman of the party shortly after the elections, with her top aides, Premier William Lai and Presidential secretary general Chen Chu, offering to step down, only to be asked to stay on.
DPP secretary general Hung Yao-fu also submitted his resignation, apologising to supporters for not doing his job well enough and using a “wrong campaign strategy”, which he did not specify.
“[Hung] should mean the use of the ‘disinformation’ and ‘reunification versus independence’ cards during the race,” said Chung Chi-ming, a government policy expert and professor of National Taipei University of Education.
Perceiving that it might lose its long-time pro-independence stronghold in Kaohsiung in the face of the growing popularity of KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu, the DPP resorted to scare tactics by hinting that if the party lost the local polls, the self-ruled island would be swallowed up by the mainland. It also accused Beijing of spreading disinformation to confuse voters and upset the chances of DPP candidates.
“Both the ‘reunification versus independence’ and the US cards did not work this time as most voters focused only on the economy rather than political or ideological issues,” he said, explaining that they were part of the reason for the DPP’s defeat in the weekend’s polls.
Analysts said US President Donald Trump’s administration favoured Tsai staying on as president for the second term so that it could continue to play the Taiwan card in its dealings with Beijing, including the trade war and the mainland’s military expansion in the disputed South China Sea.
“The DPP defeat may abet the KMT’s chances in the 2020 poll, which could once again allow China to influence Taiwan thanks to the KMT’s mainland-friendly policy,” said Fan Shih-ping, professor of political science at National Normal University, adding that this would create a loophole in the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy.
Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, has suspended official exchanges with Taiwan, staged wargames near the island and poached five of Taiwan’s allies since Tsai was elected president and refused to accept the “one-China” principle, which Beijing insists is a foundation for the resumption of warmer cross-strait ties. This has prompted Tsai to embrace Washington.
Aside from the sensitive US-China-Taiwan triangular relations, analysts said the Tsai government must deal with the impact of business exchanges between the mainland and the 15 cities, including the three special municipalities – New Taipei City, Taichung and Kaohsiung, controlled by the KMT.
“KMT candidates like Han Kuo-yu and Lu Hsiu-yen have all said that they support the 1992 consensus and would have business exchanges with China,” said Soong Hseik-wen, director of national security studies at National Chung Cheng University in Chiayi, southern Taiwan. “This will create a big headache for Tsai over what to deal with it.”
Both Han and Yu, as well as other mayors or commissioners-elect in the 15 constituencies controlled by the KMT, have supported the consensus underlining that the two sides recognise that there is only one China, but each can have its interpretation of what that China stands for.
Soong suggested that the Tsai government should not to treat Beijing as an enemy but try all it could to improve communication with the mainland to avert “misunderstanding and misjudgment”, given that the election result showed voters cared more about the economy and better jobs than political ideology or the independence issue.
But analysts said it might be too premature to say that Tsai would not stand a chance in the 2020 presidential election.
“Tsai is expected to seek a second term despite the failure in her mid-term test, just like Barack Obama who suffered a serious setback in the US mid-term elections,” said DPP legislator Lo Chih-cheng, former executive director of the Taipei-based Institute of National Policy Research.
“But she needs to review her ‘middle of the road’ approach in running the government, as such an approach would end up pleasing no one,” Lo said, adding that she is still most powerful figure in the DPP, controlling both the government and parliament.
On Beijing’s policy towards Taiwan, Lo said the mainland was unlikely to change its suppression policy towards Tsai as it did not want to give her credit and would wait until after 2020 to decide what approach it should adopt depending on whether the DPP or the KMT was the winner.