Last Saturday, a record-high 74 percent of Taiwan’s registered voters went to the polling precincts to cast their vote. Some even flew in from foreign countries just to be able to have their voices heard through the ballot.
Though surveys had earlier predicted a win, the incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen’s victory was a stunning landslide. After the counting began at 4 pm, the trend seemed to hold, and by 8:30 that evening, the main opponent, KMT’s Han Kuo-yu, conceded defeat.
Immediately after, in a press conference at the capital, Pres. Tsai, flanked by her incumbent vice-president, the devoutly Catholic academician Chen-Chien-jen, and her newly-elected team-mate, William Lai, as well as Foreign Affairs Minister Jaushieh Joseph Wu, accepted the landslide verdict.
The incumbent received 8.17 million votes, the highest ever since presidential elections began in 1996, as against the KMT candidate who got 5.5 million votes. A third candidate, James Soong, garnered only 600 thousand votes.
Taiwan’s electoral system has similarities with the US system, where there are basically two parties, although independent or third parties are allowed to participate. Though they are elected by direct votes and not by electoral college, presidents and vice-presidents get a four-year term, with one re-election. Just as in the US, there is no cross-voting when it comes to the vice-president, unlike in our country.
Tsai also carried with her most of the legislators, with the DPP winning 61 seats, against the Kuomintang’s 38 in the parliament or Legislative Yuan.
The victory, while predicted by surveys, represents a comeback from behind, as local elections in November 2018, just about a year before, showed the KMT (Kuomintang) trouncing Tsai’s DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) even in their strongholds, such as southern Kaohsiung and central Taichung.
Han Kuo-yu, though not a native of Kaohsiung, won overwhelmingly in the southern port city and industrial center, breaking the DPP’s two decades old reign. From such a vantage point, the popular mayor launched his bid for the presidency, and got the nod of KMT’s mostly senior-citizen party hierarchy.
Pres. Tsai’s leadership seemed challenged when the campaign began, with Premier William Lai, the charismatic former mayor of Tainan, contesting her candidacy. But in the end, both teamed up to unify the party which had traditionally rejected unification with the mainland.
At the start of 2019, it seemed like the KMT was strongly positioned for a comeback. Pres. Tsai’s governance and economic reforms, especially her controversial pension system reform which affected Taiwan’s huge senior citizen population, were quite unpopular.
The London School of Economics-educated Tsai was more of a technocrat than a populist politician, the opposite of the folksy Han Kuo-yu. She was very formal, looking more like a strict school teacher as against the back-slapping Kaohsiung mayor whose language in the hustings were quite colorful.
But then, Hong Kong began its street protests in May last year, and as it mounted stubbornly despite Beijing’s warnings, the voting trend in Taiwan likewise began to reverse its direction
The “one country-two systems” solution to highly contested “re-unification” began to wither in Taiwanese public opinion, as the Hong Kong showcase was increasingly rejected, especially in their December legislative election results.
This led a foreign media reporter to ask Pres. Tsai in her first press conference after being re-elected if she thought “President Xi Jin-ping actually helped her get re-elected.”
Tsai sidestepped the ironic observation, but declared: “Today I want once again to remind the Beijing authorities that peace, parity and dialogue are the keys to stability…I want the Beijing authorities to know that democratic Taiwan and our democratically-elected government will never concede to threats”.
“I hope that Beijing will show its goodwill…(we) have shown that when our sovereignty and democracy are threatened, the Taiwan people will shout our determination even more loudly,” she stated.
Observers around the world read Tsai’s landslide victory as a clear rejection of the “one-country, two systems” approach that the People’s Republic of China viewed as the right step towards re-unification.
The UK’s Telegraph called Taiwan’s election results “a blow to China,” while Boston-based Christian Science Monitor commented that Taiwan’s voters say “thanks, but no way” to closer ties with Beijing.
How does the future of cross-strait relations read in the light of the landslide victory of the incumbent and her party? How will Beijing read the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup of “re-unification”? With the antecedent events in Hong Kong and the results of the Taiwan elections last Saturday, how will Beijing calculate its moves?
These and many more are questions that will bear close watching by the world, especially the countries beside the South China Sea, Japan and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, and at home, the Philippines being the closest neighbor to the south of Taiwan, with some 160.000 nationals in the island.
As the New Year has unfolded, and the Chinese New Year starts 12 days hence, with events in the Middle East discombobulating that region and the rest of humanity, we can only hope and pray that peace will continue to reign in these parts, and dialogue rather than confrontation will be the mode of resolving disputes in the South China Sea.