Election blues in store for Taiwan’s China-sympathizers

With Taiwan’s general elections scheduled for January 11, all signs point to the continuation of the political ice age across the Taiwan Straits for another four years as voters, made wary by Beijing’s heavy-handed tactics in Hong Kong, back away from China-friendly candidates.

Interviews in Taipei by Asia Sentinel indicate a clear sense of desperation on the part of China-friendly voters. The pro-Beijing candidate Han Kuo-yu of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) dismissed the latest opinion polls by saying his 35 percent deficiency to the incumbent Tsai Ing-wen of the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party is only because he instructed his supporters to fake support for Tsai.

The prevailing view is that Tsai’s political fortunes have been restored only by the six months of continuing Hong Kong unrest, allowing her to fully mask her administration’s poor performance. The protests started in Hong Kong in June against what were considered heavy-handed plans to allow extradition to mainland China, which an overwhelming number of residents regarded as an attempt to undermine judicial independence and endanger dissidents.

The protests have continued unabated, with growing violence on both sides, culminating in local elections in November that were overwhelmingly won by pro-democracy candidates who are now demanding full democracy and an inquiry into police brutality.

Notably, in the latest Taiwan-wide polls – the combined local elections held in November 2018, or roughly a half year before the Hong Kong unrest began – the DPP suffered a crushing defeat, winning only six of Taiwan’s 16 counties and six municipalities. The elections were accompanied by a multi-question referendum, which also resulted in an overwhelming display of public distrust against Tsai’s economic, social and anti-China policies.

“The events in Hong Kong have had a huge political impact on Taiwan, with Tsai grasping the opportunity to sow hatred against China, making the people of Taiwan think that China's reunification will lead to violence and upheaval as now seen in Hong Kong,” a woman in her 60s surnamed Chen told Asia Sentinel. “The Tsai government controls the direction of media coverage on Hong Kong, leaving people without a clear understanding of the truth.”

Chen alleged that political conspiracy, as opposed to a longing for democracy, triggered the Hong Kong protests in the first place, citing what she perceived as the stark contrast between protesters’ preparedness and Hong Kong police’s unpreparedness.

Similarly, another middle-aged woman surnamed Wang sees the Hong Kong issue as being over-exploited in Taiwan’s political discourse, leading to confusion in the electoral runup.

“I always think that we should pick a person capable to do the right thing at the right time, as opposed to someone like Tsai leading the country with anti-China ideology instead,” Wang said. “Unfortunately, a lot of my young friends have been brainwashed, still picking the person by based solely on emotions.”

There’s arguably a similar sense of despair on the other side of the Taiwan Straits.

Taiwan’s political history has seen a handful for electoral runups disrupted by last-minute events, but if the DPP retains the presidency by a wide margin and also holds on to its current comfortable legislative majority, it is an indication that the Taiwan policy of Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping has crashed and burned.

Indeed, when Xi’s term began in March 2013, he inherited from his predecessor Hu Jintao a favorable situation in which the KMT was comfortably holding the presidency it had won the previous year with 51.6 percent of the vote, compared to the DPP’s 45.6 percent.

In the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, the KMT’s lead had been even more commanding at the time Hu handed the baton to Xi, with 64 seats, compared to the DPP’s 40.

By contrast, in 2016, in the first Taiwanese elections that fell in Xi’s presidency, the DPP won back the presidency with 56.1 percent, far ahead of the KMT’s 31 percent. Xi’s preferred party crashed also in the Legislative Yuan, losing 29 seats, whereas the DPP gained 28.

Nevertheless, this may not weaken Xi’s own political standing in China as much as one might think.

“Xi’s people still fully control the narrative or news reporting in China, and a victory for Tsai will be presented in a way that is least embarrassing for Xi,” said Steve Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute at SOAS University of London.

“There is also the question of the Legislative Yuan elections – if the DPP doesn’t win effective control over it, it would give the CCP scope to report the news as not so great a victory for Tsai,” he added.