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What Does the 2016 Taiwan Presidential Election Signify?

By Dr Fang-long Shih
Co-Director, LSE Taiwan Research Programme
18 January 2016

This commentary is written by Dr Fang-long Shih as an analysis of the significance of Taiwan’s 2016 Presidential election two days after the election outcome. It is based on her comments in a panel discussion in Taipei on the same topic.

Critical changes in the history of Taiwan’s elections

On 16 January 2016 around 10pm Taipei time, Tsai Ing-wen became the first female President of the Republic of China, having won the sixth direct election for President in Taiwan’s history. The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai and her running-mate Chen Jien-ren became the fourteenth President and Vice-President of Republic of China. However, the turnout rate for this election – to determine the RoC’s 14th Presidential term since the 1947 Constitution – was the lowest in Taiwan’s presidential voting history, at 66.2%, but Tsai Ing-wen and Chen Jien-ren achieved 56.12% of the vote (which was second only to the KMT Ma Ying-jeou’s 58.45% in 2008), and the gap between the number of votes between them and their KMT opponents Eric Chu Li-lun and his running-mate Wang Ju-hsuan was the largest ever, at 3.08 million.

However, Tsai received just over 800,000 more votes than four years ago, and the size of Tsai’s victory for the DPP was mainly due to abstention and spoilt votes among the pro-KMT “Blue” camp. At the same time, in the ninth legislative election, Dr Tsai’s DPP also won 68 out of 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan, which means that the DPP has become the majority party once again (the last time was in 2001), and with over half of the legislative seats for the first time ever. The 2016 general election rolled out the DPP’s second chance to rule, and has advanced the democratic history of Taiwan as the Republic of China welcomes its third transfer of political power.

Taiwan’s democracy and women’s power brought in line with international trends

On the night of 16 January, the Apple Daily ran a headline in bold font stating, ‘Tsai Ing-wen, the First Female President in the Chinese World, was Elected’. This general election in Taiwan will be considered significant not only in Chinese history, but also in the context of world history. Tsai Ing-wen, with a PhD in law, graduated from the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1984. She is the 37th LSE alumna/alumni to become a head of state, and her rise is particularly fitting given the LSE’s early links with the Suffragette movement. The headquarters of the Union was located at today’s LSE Tower 3, where a plaque is fixed to the wall in memory of this struggle. Inheriting the will of these suffragettes, members of the Fabian Society—who also founded LSE—in the early 20th century dedicated themselves to breaking the inequalities of gender and social class, and many from this group became leaders in advancing women’s voices in politics. The treasured records documenting the history of these suffrage movements are now in the collection of the Women’s Library at LSE and listed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register.

Madam Tsai Ing-wen is quite different from other female presidents and premiers in Asia today, such as the Philippines’ Corazon Aquino, South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, or Thailand’s Yingluck Shinawatra. Rather than coming from a political family and being connected with a male figure (either a father or husband), Tsai is a fresh face in politics, and she is unmarried. It is worth remembering that in traditional Chinese families and societies, unmarried women were usually seen as inferior, which is reflected in old Taiwanese sayings: ‘It is forbidden to worship unmarried female members at home’ (厝內無拜姑) or ‘unmarried female members after death are not permitted to be enshrined on the ancestral altar at home’ (姑婆不能上廳桌頭). However, Tsai’s ability and perseverance (she also ran for President in 2012) has successfully silenced traditional conservative discrimination towards unmarried women. Her victory in this election not only marks an unprecedented chapter in pan-Chinese history, but further bridges the developments of democracy and women’s power in Taiwan with international trends.

The keys to winning: solidarity and self-confidence

‘Solidarity’ and ‘self-confidence’ were the concepts Tsai evoked to close her speech as she expressed her gratitude to her supporters after the international press conference. Afterwards, these two words were further picked up by the moderator using to cheer the crowd and to consolidate the victory. However, this election was wrapped in mixed feelings of uneasiness and excitement, as if shouting ‘solidarity’ and ‘self-confidence’ was sort of a ritual of taking of an oath. The success of Tsai Ing-wen in this election was achieved primarily by not manipulating the politics of identity and ethnicity – i.e., provincial natives versus provincial outsiders; the Green identity versus the Blue identity; Taiwan independence versus Unification with China – rather, it was a campaign of solidarity against foreign threats, which effectively pulled together disparate political views across the pro-Taiwan DPP and its pan-Green camp versus the pro-China KMT and its pan-Blue camp.

During the international press conference following the election, we saw how the two flags of the Republic of China (with the KMT party emblem) and the DPP (with the island of Taiwan) were raised side by side, and Tsai displayed her acknowledgement and respect for thethe meeting made by the two sides in 1992 with her promise to keep the current peace on the two shores. However, Tsai Ing-wen also reflected on President Ma Ying-jeou’s China policy, which seeks common ground under the idea of ‘one China with different interpretations’; since the Taiwanese people have not become better off from this, she took a very different approach and promised that she would not ‘take the future of the Taiwanese people as a wager’. She stressed the importance of people’s participation in politics, the transparency of democratic decisions, and the right of Taiwanese people to make their own choices. In short, she reaffirmed the values that the Taiwanese people have developed and the vision of Taiwanese people to find their own ways with confidence in the near future.

Taiwan’s 2016 general election can be described as a ‘victory of the civic citizens in Taiwan’ (including those who expressed their disappointment by their spoiled or abandoned ballots, which will force the KMT to reflect on its wrongdoing). However, there seems to be a lack of joyful excitement for the triumph compared with the past. Following this election, will citizenship in Taiwan be developed with positive energy? Will the new government be capable of ensuring the safety of food, nuclear power plants, and the nation? Will the judicial reform fulfil the true spirit of justice? Can Taiwan create an advantage within the global economic structure in the post-Ma/pro-China era? For President Tsai Ing-wen, her party and government and even to all Taiwanese people, these are the extraordinary challenges and tests that lie ahead.