By Shelley Rigger*
With barely a month to go before voting day, Taiwan’s elections are in the final stretch. The past few months have seen a whirlwind of activity on both sides, but early predictions of a strong finish by the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen look better than ever. If anything, observers – and strategists within the DPP itself – may have underestimated the party’s chances. At the moment, Tsai enjoys a double-digit lead over her competitors, and the DPP appears headed for a majority – or very close to one – in Taiwan’s legislature.
The central thrust of this election season may be consistent, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been plenty of activity. When the campaign began last summer, a number of news outlets noted that Taiwan was about to elect its first female president. Making that call didn’t take much political savvy, because both major candidates – the DPP and the KMT, or Kuomintang – had nominated women.
It wasn’t long, though, before the men got back into the picture. The first to join was James Soong, the leader of the Peoples First Party (PFP), who threw his hat into the ring on August 8. Initially, it seemed Soong’s intention was less to win the presidency than to boost the candidacies of PFP legislative hopefuls, but he quickly gained on the other conservative candidate in the race, the KMT’s Hung Hsiu-chu.
Soong was able to make headway in part because Hung’s campaign was floundering. From the beginning, Hung was an odd choice. She was nominated when more prominent KMT figures declined to enter the race, earning her the status of an accidental candidate. Hung had never run for an office that required a majority vote before (she held her legislative seat as a party list representative) and her inexperience as a candidate addressing the median voter quickly became a problem for the campaign. She took positions well to the right of even the KMT mainstream, and for someone running for high office, she seemed surprisingly unconcerned about appealing to voters. With a weak candidate at the top of the ticket, some KMT legislative aspirants quit the race. Taiwan’s long-time ruling party seemed on the brink of disaster.
Enter Eric Chu, KMT chairman and New Taipei City mayor. On October 17 the KMT held a special party congress at which it fired the “Little Chili Pepper,” Hung Hsiu-chu, and turned the nomination over to Chu. Chu moved quickly to repair the KMT brand, declaring his allegiance to mainstream KMT positions, including on cross-Strait relations, and announcing a trip to Washington (a standard step on the road to Taiwan’s presidential office that Hung had deemed unnecessary). The KMT’s poll numbers showed a modest bounce after the change, but not the major rebound Chu will need if he is to be elected.
Three weeks after Chu joined the race, the KMT put itself on the front page again by announcing that Ma Ying-jeou, the current president and KMT member, was about to meet his PRC counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Singapore. The meeting, which took place on November 7, was the first time the presidents of Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China have met face-to-face. Previous high-level meetings took the form of party-to-party talks, but Ma is no longer the KMT’s leader, so the meeting could only be understood as a meeting of political leaders – something the PRC has been loath to accept in the past.
The meeting may have been a breakthrough in cross-Strait relations (although that assessment is subject to debate), but it did not provide the breakthrough Chu needed for his presidential run. Tsai handled the news skillfully. She didn’t rise to the bait and criticize the meeting itself, but she questioned the opaque nature of the planning and encouraged the media to parse Ma’s every word and gesture in Singapore. In the end, the Ma-Xi meeting did little to move the needle on the electoral front.
The KMT has now pulled two rabbits out of its hat, neither of which wrung the needed applause from the audience. Even if there is a third rabbit hiding somewhere, there is little hope its emergence will change the outcome of the election.
With Tsai Ying-wen’s lead in the presidential race strong and widening (most polls show her in the mid-40s, with Chu trailing by at least 20 percentage points), attention has shifted to the legislative race. Taiwan’s legislature has 113 seats. Seventy-three are elected from single-member districts, 34 are chosen in party list voting, and 6 are elected from two Aboriginal constituencies. The DPP, which currently holds just 40 seats, hopes to win a majority, or 57.
Polling suggests the DPP could get 50% more party list votes than the KMT. Assuming a handful of party list seats go to third-party candidates, that gives the DPP about 18 to the KMT’s 12. That would leave the DPP (which could win its first Aboriginal seat as well) needing 39 district seats to capture an outright majority. The party won 27 district seats in 2012, so if it holds those districts and picks up 12 more, it will make its goal. With nine seats within easy reach and many more in play, a DPP majority no longer looks like a long shot.
Although these predictions are based on early polling, and many voters have yet to declare their intentions, the outcome is looking increasingly firm. That’s true not least because the DPP is unified, organized, and moving steadily toward its objectives while the KMT has made one mistake after another. One of the most recent of these was Chu’s choice of human rights lawyer Jennifer Wang as his running mate. Her professional history suggested Wang would be an asset to the campaign, but the media quickly raised serious questions about her past business dealings and her treatment of the disadvantaged, including laborers and veterans.
Therefore all signs seem to indicate this election is all but over. Washington and Beijing should prepare for what comes next.
About the author:
*Shelley Rigger, a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is the Brown Professor of East Asian Politics at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. She has a PhD in Government from Harvard University. Her most recent book is: Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).
This article was published by FPRI.