Tsai Ing-wen Reelected in Taiwan in Historic Victory

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was decisively reelected on Saturday in an election that had become a referendum on democratic freedoms and Taiwanese autonomy. Winning 57 percent of the vote against Kuomintang challenger Han Kuo-yu, Tsai, of the Democratic Progressive Party, had seen her popularity surge in recent months as voters contended with a coordinated disinformation and propaganda campaign from Beijing and concerns over encroaching Chinese government control in Hong Kong.

At The Wall Street Journal, Chun Han Wong and William Kazer write about how ongoing protests in Hong Kong, and the Chinese government response, influenced Taiwanese voters to support Tsai and her defense of Taiwan’s autonomy:

Opinion polls suggest that Ms. Tsai’s decisive win stemmed in large part from widespread sympathies for anti-Beijing protesters in Hong Kong, which energized Taiwanese opposition against China’s efforts to cajole and coerce the self-ruled island into accepting unification with the mainland.

Beijing has maintained an implacable face over the result. Its Taiwan Affairs Office reiterated China’s commitment to applying to Taiwan the “one country, two systems” formula currently used to govern Hong Kong as a semiautonomous territory—even though protests there against Beijing’s growing influence have energized Taiwanese opposition to the proposal.

Such sentiment was instrumental in Ms. Tsai’s re-election, lifting her from the political doldrums in late 2018 when her Democratic Progressive Party suffered humiliating losses at local elections amid widespread dissatisfaction over her perceived mishandling of the economy, pension reforms and relations with the mainland.

China appeared to dismiss Ms. Tsai’s post-victory offer to start dialogue with Beijing on condition that Taiwan’s sovereignty and democracy are respected. The Taiwan Affairs Office reiterated that dialogue must be predicated on an acknowledgment that Taiwan is part of “one China.” [Source]

Anna Fifield at the Washington Post looks at why so many Taiwanese were motivated to vote in this election, with thousands of overseas Taiwanese flying home to participate:

Even for the dynamic democracy that is Taiwan — complete with candidates in Japanese anime costume and a death-metal band frontman — this election was electrified.

That was partly because of the Hong Kong factor, but also because of clear signs that China was trying to spread fake news through social media and tilt the coverage in traditional media with strong ties to the mainland. The disinformation continued on election day, with messages circulating on social media telling people not to come out to vote because of the risk of a pneumonialike virus from China.

Chinese efforts to muddy the waters in Taiwan were credited with propelling the KMT to a huge victory in local elections at the end of 2018, with voters skewing older. But China’s efforts may have backfired spectacularly by encouraging people to vote — and not for the KMT.

[…] The cautionary tale of Hong Kong encouraged many young Taiwanese to vote. “I don’t want Taiwan to become the next Hong Kong,” said Chen Yi-wen, a 28-year-old waitress in Taipei. “We have to use our votes to guarantee the democracy and freedom of our home.” [Source]

Since her first election in 2016, Tsai has ardently defended Taiwan’s autonomy from China, and in response Beijing has racheted up pressure on other countries which recognize Taiwan diplomatically. Seven countries have switched diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing since Tsai’s first election, while global corporations, organizations, and other entities have acquiesced to Chinese government demands to name Taiwan as part of China. In her victory speech Saturday, Tsai maintained her firm stance against Beijing’s influence efforts while also promoting a relationship built on mutual respect, saying: “I also hope that the Beijing authorities understand that a democratic Taiwan and our democratically elected government will not concede to threats and intimidation…Positive cross-straits interaction, founded in mutual respect, is the best way to serve our peoples. The results of this election have made that answer crystal clear.” Jennifer Creery at Hong Kong Free Press reports:

Tsai on Saturday reaffirmed her commitment to a cross-strait relationship built on mutual respect. The victory speech was a rebuff of Beijing’s long-standing view of Taiwan as part of its territory, despite never having governed the island. In 1945, Japan ceded control of the territory to the Republic of China government, which has controlled it ever since.

“Saturday’s election sent an undeniable signal that Taiwan is keen on maintaining its liberal-democratic way of life, and that it opposes all forms of coercion and pressure on unification and ‘One Country, Two Systems’,” J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington DC, told HKFP. He referred to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s proposal, raised in his 2019 New Year’s address, to draw up a close bilateral agreement with Taiwan, as seen in Hong Kong.

“The results also discredited the alternative proposed by the populist Han Kuo-yu, who had the kind of undemocratic tendencies that Taiwanese voters made clear isn’t for them,” he added. “This vote also confirmed the social trends in Taiwan society, such as respect for LGBT rights, generational justice and so on.”

[…] Tsai has invoked Hong Kong as a cautionary tale of Beijing’s tightening grip on one of its peripheries, with the slogan “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow” appearing at rallies across the island ahead of the election.

But [Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Bonnie] Glaser also put Tsai’s electoral success down to manifold factors including the strength of the economy in terms of its strong export growth and low unemployment rate. [Source]

Beijing had supported Tsai’s opponent Han Kuo-yu and had waged a propaganda and disinformation campaign to support his candidacy. The Chinese government responded to the election results by reasserting its claim to Taiwan and accusing Tsai of using “dirty tactics” to win. Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee report for Reuters:

The election campaign was dominated by China’s efforts to get the democratic island to accept Beijing’s rule under a “one country, two systems” model, as well as by anti-government protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong.

“No matter what changes there are to the internal situation in Taiwan, the basic fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China will not change,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

[…] China hoped the world would support the “just cause” of Chinese people to oppose secessionist activities and “realize national reunification”, it added.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said China should respect the election result and stop putting pressure on the island. [Source]

Despite Beijing’s belligerence in the wake of election results, it is unclear how cross-strait relations will fare in coming years—though immediately tensions are expected to escalate—and if Beijing has assessed its own role in Tsai’s election victory. From DW:

Other experts said China’s hardline policy towards Taiwan not only failed to influence the election on Saturday, but it even convinced more Taiwanese people to come out and vote. According to Taiwan’s Central Election Commission, Saturday’s voter turnout was nearly at 75%, a historic high.

Yen Wei-Ting, a Taiwanese political scientist teaching at the Franklin and Marshall College in the US, said China’s continuous aggression towards Taiwan, and the ongoing Hong Kong protests, helped drive up voter turnout.

[…] Some experts said that the election result means that Beijing will have to adjust its cross-Strait policy, since both economic benefits and economic coercion have failed to have an impact on Taiwan’s domestic politics.

Austin Wang, a Taiwanese political science professor at the University of Nevada, said he thinks China’s Taiwan policy will become two-fold.

“Beijing will harden its hardline policy and soften its soft-line policy,” Wang told DW. “It is very likely that China will initiate more military actions to create direct or indirect conflicts with Taiwan. It may also increase the frequency of cyberattacks on Taiwan, periodically paralyzing the function of the Taiwanese government.” [Source]

Overseas Chinese democracy activists and Hong Kong protesters both lauded Tsai’s victory and said it gave them hope for the future of democracy in China. James Pomfret and Yimou Lee report for Reuters:

Some who left the Asian financial hub after nearly seven months of often violent protests said they welcomed Tsai’s historic win with more than 8 million votes, exceeding the tally of any previous president.

“A weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” said a Hong Kong protester in Taipei, who gave his name only as Roger and said he had feared being kicked out of Taiwan if its China-friendly opposition Kuomintang party swept to power.

[…] “I hope Hong Kong can be like Taiwan, that in the time of our next generation, Hong Kong will be a democratic and free place,” said Ventus Lau, one of the organizers of a 1,000- strong rally in Hong Kong against the Chinese Communist Party.

“That’s why, in 2020, we need to fight autocracy together with the international community,” Lau said on Sunday. [Source]


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