On Jan 16, history appears to be in the making in Taiwan as citizens go to the polls to elect their president. Tsai Ing-wen, female candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has consistently maintained a substantial lead over two rival candidates and seems dead certain to be Taiwan’s first woman president.
Pessimists say relations with the mainland are at stake, with the island’s 18 million voters almost certain to deliver a party to power by a wide margin that has consistently resisted a closer embrace with Beijing.
Taiwan’s young in particular are markedly not in sympathy with the mainland. In March of 2014, they occupied the Legislative Yuan for 24 days in protest against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement promulgated by the ruling Kuomintang to strengthen trade ties with Beijing. The Sunflower Movement, named for the fact that protesters filled the chamber with sunflowers, has lost none of its potency. Its leaders expect this election to advance the process of democratization and safeguard the island’s sovereignty.
As with Hong Kong, it is increasingly clear that the young do not consider themselves part of the mainland and are demanding to pursue their own course. The movement parallels that of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, composed of similar college students and civil groups which in 2014 put on months of demonstrations against Beijing’s attempts to weaken the territory’s electoral laws. Indeed, Hong Kong groups are sending observers to Taiwan for the election.
Many overseas voters, particularly those backing the DPP, are returning to participate in this anticipated victory. Foreign journalists are streaming in as well both because of the gender issue and also because the choice of a DPP candidate seems a direct renunciation of the previous “China friendly” policies and direction of the outgoing Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) President Ma Ying-jeou, whose voter approval rating had sunk almost out of sight.
This marks the sixth election since 1996 in which all eligible citizens have participated in choosing their president. If Tsai wins it will also mark the third transition of power between competing parties.
As of the last poll – polls are forbidden to be announced starting from 10 days prior to the election – Tsai was leading by some 20 percent over her competitors, Eric Chu of the KMT and James Soong of the People’s First Party. The poll numbers have been consistent for the past months and recent presidential and vice presidential debates have done little to alter their numbers.
Jason Hu, KMT Campaign manager for Eric Chu, said his party’s internal polls indicate that Chu has been closing the gap, but savvy watchers know Hu made a similar announcement when he was behind in his campaign for reelection as mayor of the special municipality of Taichung City. His DPP opponent then defeated him by a margin of 57 to 42.9 per cent.
The very strong possibility exists that the opposition DPP will also gain control of the Legislative Yuan, where the Kuomintang and its pan-blue coalition has always had a majority rule. It is a reflection of the feeling among voters that the Kuomintang is not only too close to Beijing but a tired party with few new ideas.
In the legislature, where all 113 seats are up for grabs, 73 are directly elected in districts, 34 are chosen from an at-large party slate and 6 seats are reserved for the indigenous or aboriginal people. In total, more than 350 candidates from 18 parties are competing for these 113 seats. To win at-large seats, a party has to pass a somewhat high bar of 5 per cent of the party vote but the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) and the PFP have done so in the past.
A definite shakeup appears certain in the legislature. Joseph Wu, DPP Secretary General speaking at a Roundtable Discussion sponsored by International Community Radio Taipei with support from Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expressed his party’s confidence that they will definitely outgain their opponents.
Wu’s words were echoed at a separate conference held by the Taiwan Thinktank, which reported on opinion surveys conducted 11 times from 2014 to 2015. Their surveys clearly support the fact that the DPP will gain the majority of seats and that a major reason is both voters are switching to have confidence in the DPP as better able to promote economic development.
Other salient issues presented by I-chung Lai, Vice President of the Thinktank are that for Taiwanese, China is no longer viewed as a place of business opportunity as it had been in 2008. Further a growing dislike for Chinese tourists is developing, as impacted citizens wish for fewer tourists than in the past. They also prioritize security over economy,
On the new faces front, many new comers are expected to break into the legislature. The New Power Party (NPP), a party that sprung up after the Sunflower Protest of March, 2014 appears certain to pass the 5 per cent threshold to get at-large seats while the incumbent TSU may lose its seats.
The NPP’s most prominent candidate is Freddy Lim, heavy metal rocker of the band Chthonic. However, Lim is not the only unusual candidate in this democratic race. Wu’er Kaixi, a Uighur and well-known Tiananmen Square protestor, now a citizen in Taiwan, is running for the legislature as is Chang An-lo, aka the White Wolf, an alleged triad leader who served 10 years in a US penitentiary. Chang’s party supports unification with China. Even Lin Li-chan, a foreign bride from Cambodia has thrown her hat into the legislative ring on the KMT side in their at-large ranks. This unusual election will clearly have many ramifications some of which will impact all of Asia.
Election returns are quick in Taiwan with polls closing at 4 pm. Thus by six or seven on Saturday evening, most results will be clearly visible. And by Sunday barring a few close races in some legislative districts, the full details will be out.