Incumbent leader Tsai Ing-wen will face off the KMT's Han Kuo-yu in January's election. Photos: Central News Agency, AFP

The Taiwan presidential election is less than two months away, but the chances of incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen and the governing Democratic Progressive Party staying in power are far from assured.

As the election approaches, the stakes for the DPP and the opposition Kuomintang party are extremely high. It may be premature to predict how the election will play out, as Tsai is garnering consistent double-digit leads over KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu in the polls. Whether Tsai’s strength in the polls is more a reflection of an actual resurgence in the DPP’s popularity or the weakness of her KMT opponent is hard to tell.

While Tsai was on cloud nine, complacent with her strong poll ratings, at her rallies, supporters have appeared rather cold. There are three possible reasons for this.

First, DDP supporters may feel that Tsai’s electoral prospects are already very stable, so they needn’t show special enthusiasm for her. Second, they are no longer passionate about the DPP’s perennial tactics of shouting “defending sovereignty.” Third, Tsai’s governance for the past three years probably caused harm to long-term, diehard supporters’ livelihoods, while she has been unable to offer new hopes to younger generations.

Although the KMT’s presidential candidate is currently behind in the polls, the party remains in a strong position to take back Taiwan’s parliament. In the last general elections, the DPP won power in the central government and secured a majority of seats in parliament, fulfilling the goal of “complete control of government.” But after more than three years in power, why has the performance of the Tsai administration and DPP legislators so disappointed the public?

It may be explained by the fact that the DPP caucus forfeited functions of parliamentary checks and balances, making Tsai an autocrat, while the national development policy has gradually gone further down a slanting and risky path. The stunning defeat of the DPP at the end of last year in local elections was a warning from the voters. Tsai is sacrificing the people’s welfare and the legitimacy of DPP legislators to consolidate her own power and authority. However, she has not been able to earn the overwhelming support of the people, nor could she elevate the people’s trust or liking for DPP legislators.

Looking at the trends of current opinion polls, the DPP’s complete control of government will most likely come to a full stop in January. The DPP not only won’t keep a parliamentary majority, it will most likely lose its status as the largest party. At that time, even if Tsai wins the presidential election, she will be relegated to lame-duck status. What is unfortunate for the party is that while it originally had such an excellent opportunity for complete control of government, it has totally squandered it in the self-degradation of DPP legislators, only making an autocratic president out of someone who constantly spoke of humility.

The Tsai government’s cross-Strait and diplomatic operations rely on three strategies. One is to oppose China, the second is relying on the US to bicker with China, and the third is selling “a sense of losing one’s country.” The focus of the Tsai government’s thinking is, by utilizing the escalation of cross-Strait tensions, it can shift questions about maladministration and suppressing internal dissent into votes.

Since its stunning defeat in the nine-in-one local elections last November, the DPP has been bickering with China, which in combination with the US-China confrontation, cross-Strait relations have rapidly deteriorated. President Tsai prides herself on being a “daredevil”; however, bickering with China in a high pitch is not the best way to defend Taiwan’s democracy, because eliciting the oppression of the other side of the Strait will imperil Taiwan’s security environment. Without security, and without opportunities for development, can the institutions of democracy endure and remain stable?

The presidential race is about choosing Taiwan’s future; the voters cannot rely on political rhetoric to educate them on how to cast their ballots. As the incumbent national leader, President Tsai must adopt a responsible attitude to explain clearly where she will lead the island.

Although divergences exist between the two sides of the Strait, commonalities still abound; the question is whether the two sides are willing to seek commonalities and shelve differences. To break the current deadlock and achieve convergence with China, reopening mechanisms for dialogue, temporarily halting the diplomatic avalanche, and establishing benign cross-Strait interactions all need President Tsai to introduce concrete policies.

Tsai must realistically face the current cross-Strait situation, shouldering responsibility for Taiwan’s future development; she must not become the terminator at the turning point for Taiwan’s march toward decay and collapse. China is the world’s second-largest economy; with good cross-Strait relations, Taiwan will benefit; with cross-Strait relations turning bad, it will not. To create opportunities for cross-Strait relations is to create opportunities for Taiwan’s survival and development.

The DPP used to have ideals of trumping authoritarianism and pushing for democratic reforms; now it has departed far from the core ideals of democracy – pluralism, inclusiveness, communication, respect for dissent, and the ideal that oversight as well as checks and balances are the foundations of a democratic system. The DPP under Tsai’s leadership won the presidency and a majority of seats in parliament in 2016; but since it secured complete control of government, what the people have witnessed is not complete responsibility, but complete dictatorship.

The DPP has been engaging in bitter battles with the KMT, using its majority to suppress the opposition in parliament, frantically pinning “fellow traveler” labels on the KMT in the media, never trying to communicate or engage in cooperation on even some of the issues. Since Tsai took office, when has she exhibited an iota of respect toward the opposition party?

Since the Tsai government came to office, cross-Strait relations have been mired in stagnation, resulting in a domino effect in diplomacy, deteriorating economic/trade performance, energy policies that have deviated from public opinion, political patronage doled out regardless of criticism, while Sinophobia has been used to incite the emotions of the people.

The DPP has forgotten democracy; it lacks adequate checks and balances both inside and outside the party. Thus the voters cannot but erect their own checks and balances, not allowing the DPP to continue controlling the Presidential Palace, the cabinet and the parliament, so as to let Taiwan preserve its democratic system as well as pluralistic freedom and culture.

Although Washington has a lot more respect for Tsai than for Han – a firm anti-China advocate versus an anti-independence populist – whether Taiwanese voters share the same affection remains to be seen.

Kent Wang

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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