Rod Wye
Associate Fellow, Asia Programme
The resounding victory for the opposition marks a decisive break with the past and could make life much more difficult for Beijing.
DPP supporters shine lights from their mobile devices as they celebrate election results during a rally in Taipei on 16 January 2016. Photo via Getty Images.DPP supporters shine lights from their mobile devices as they celebrate election results during a rally in Taipei on 16 January 2016. Photo via Getty Images.

A victory for Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan's presidential election on Saturday had been widely predicted. But the margin of victory, and the crushing defeat suffered by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) in the concurrent legislative elections, could mean a conclusive shift in both the country’s domestic politics and its important relationship with Beijing.

Why the DPP won

President elect Tsai Ing-wen's victory was no close run thing nor was it a result of a split in the opposition vote as was claimed for her predecessor. The KMT ran a disastrously inept presidential campaign. The farcical way in which they first chose then unseated a totally unsuitable candidate simply underlined their lack of cohesion or purpose. This came on top of an unconvincing record in administration that showed the party to be increasingly tired, self-destructive and out of touch.  Eric Chu, the eventual replacement choice, had neither the time nor the charisma to put things right. 

Moreover, on the key issue of mainland policy, the KMT had come to be seen as serving more a party interest than a national one. It now appears that a majority in Taiwan believe that the DPP will more effectively champion and promote their interests in relation to China than the KMT. The coup de theatre of the meeting of the presidents of China and Taiwan in November had no discernible electoral impact. More widely, the view of the national identity as a Taiwanese one rather than a Chinese or hybrid Chinese/Taiwanese one has taken firm hold. The DPP responded more effectively to this new political climate. 

What it means for relations with Beijing

Relations between Taiwan and the mainland can only become more difficult now, but quite how that works out in practical terms remains to be seen. It seems unlikely that China will choose, initially at least, to row back from the agreements reached with the outgoing administration, but further progress will be problematic. A new basis needs to be worked out for political negotiations, and neither side will wish to compromise its position. It is likely that there will be increasingly hard line and even bellicose rhetoric emanating from some quarters in China, but it will remain more measured on the official side. The reality of China's military and economic power remains there for all to see.

The last DPP administration saw heightened tensions in US/China/Taiwan relations. The US will no doubt be arguing for calm and caution with both sides. All the official pronouncements so far from the DPP have been moderate. There is no desire for a confrontational policy from Taiwan, but equally Tsai made it clear that she was determined that ‘our democratic system, national identity, and international space must be respected. Any form of suppression will harm the stability of cross strait relations.’

A new era

President elect Tsai will be able to form and run an administration free from the shackles of a hostile legislature that made life so difficult for the first DPP administration under Chen Shui-bian, and her party can now claim a convincing popular mandate. She won by a margin of twelve percentage points over her rivals. 

But the new administration faces real challenges, even beyond mainland policy. Taiwan's economy has been relatively stagnant. There are increasing demands for new style politics. In her victory speech Tsai spoke of her wish to respond to the desire of the people for a government that is more willing to listen and one that is more transparent and accountable. She will want to escape from the shadow of the corruption that blighted the last DPP administration.

The DPP now has full control of Taiwan's political processes for the first time ever, but equally significantly the pretensions of the KMT to be the natural ruling party in Taiwan have been dealt a devastating blow. Taiwan's democracy has moved into a new era.

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