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After a Landslide Election, Now Comes the Hard Part for Taiwan's President

Taiwan elected its first woman president on Saturday in a landslide victory that brought a nominally pro-independence party back to power after eight years in opposition.

Tsai Ing-wen led her Democratic Progressive Party to a thumping victory, capturing 56.1 percent of the popular vote—easily surpassing the combined total of her two rivals—with her party winning an absolute majority in the legislature. That gives her a solid mandate and a strong hand—at least domestically—for an agenda of political and economic reform.

But now comes the hard part. Tsai was elected on a wave of voter disenchantment with incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou which seriously weakened the chances of Nationalist Party candidate Eric Chu. One source of dissatisfaction—though hardly the only one—was a perception that the Ma administration had been too willing to accommodate Beijing in a quest for stronger economic ties between mainland China and Taiwan.

Features

01.13.16

Those Taiwanese Blues

Anna Beth Keim
“Brainwashed slave!”“Running dog of the Kuomintang!”These are the sentiments 27-year-old Lin Yu-hsiang expects to find on his Facebook page as a result of his campaigning work for the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, ahead of Saturday’s...

So far, Tsai has been cautious in her statements on cross-strait relations, careful not to rattle Beijing or Washington and sticking to a tightly written script that she does not want to upset the status quo. But soon she will need to fill in details and then the task of forming a China policy will get tougher.

“This was not a status quo election,” Yen Chen-shen of the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University says. “It was about change.”

That change would apply to a stagnating economy that recorded only about 1 percent growth last year and might expand 2 percent this year if the optimists prove correct. It would mean change from a lack of new drivers of economic growth to create jobs for the island’s youth while it could also mean change from the political paralysis between the two main parties of recent years. It could also mean change from a perception of Beijing’s growing influence on the island.

Beijing, which sees Taiwan as an inseparable part of China and has threatened to use force to prevent any move toward independence, is watching Tsai’s movements closely. Analysts argue that the president-elect needs to convince Communist Party leaders that she is not turning back the clock to the tension under former President Chen Shui-bian, who held office from 2000 to 2008, —the last time the Democratic Progressive Party held power.

So far, Tsai has been able to keep in check the more stridently anti-China elements of her own party, but this reaction often is complicated by Beijing’s actions, such as the positioning of missiles aimed at the island, increasingly assertive policies in the South China Sea, continuing efforts to limit Taiwan’s participation in many technical level meetings of the World Health Organization, and opposition to Taiwan’s free trade agreement with Malaysia.

The president-elect is keenly aware of a growing Taiwanese identity on the island where some 60 percent of the population considers itself to be exclusively Taiwanese and not Chinese, according to one survey.

President Tsai also will have to contend with new grassroots political pressure groups such as those inspired by the Sunflower Movement, a 2014 student protest campaign that blocked implementation of a trade in services agreement with China. Those protests stemmed from fears the pact was sacrificing local interests in a bid to boost China ties.

Taiwan’s Election: A Photo Gallery

By Paul Ratje
  • A January 10 rally in Zhubei City for the Minkuotang, a party founded in March 2015 by former Kuomingtang representative Hsu Hsin-ying.
    A January 10 rally in Zhubei City for the Minkuotang, a party founded in March 2015 by former Kuomingtang representative Hsu Hsin-ying.
  • Campaigners in Hsinchu City prepare for a street rally for the New Power Party, which emerged after the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014 and advocates for political liberties, universal human rights, and Taiwanese independence.
    Campaigners in Hsinchu City prepare for a street rally for the New Power Party, which emerged after the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014 and advocates for political liberties, universal human rights, and Taiwanese independence.
  • Wang Bao-xuan, the candidate representing the union of the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party, gathers with supporters around a teddy bear called “Nüyingxiong,” a mascot for a protest against an expansion of Taoyuan International Airport that would displace 40,000 farmers.
    Wang Bao-xuan, the candidate representing the union of the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party, gathers with supporters around a teddy bear called “Nüyingxiong,” a mascot for a protest against an expansion of Taoyuan International Airport that would displace 40,000 farmers.
  • Candidate Hsu Hsin-ying at a rally in Zhubei County on January 10. Hsu left the Kuomingtang less than one year ago to found the Minkuotang.
    Candidate Hsu Hsin-ying at a rally in Zhubei County on January 10. Hsu left the Kuomingtang less than one year ago to found the Minkuotang.
  • Li, a Tsai Ying-wen presidential campaign worker, empties piggy banks filled with donations collected for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), at the party’s headquarters in Taipei on January 5.
    Li, a Tsai Ying-wen presidential campaign worker, empties piggy banks filled with donations collected for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), at the party’s headquarters in Taipei on January 5.
  • DPP supporters rally for presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen in the Shalu district of Taichung. Tsai is widely expected to win the election. She would be the first woman to become Taiwan’s president.
    DPP supporters rally for presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen in the Shalu district of Taichung. Tsai is widely expected to win the election. She would be the first woman to become Taiwan’s president.
  • Supporters attend a Tsai Ying-wen rally in Zhudong, Hsinchu County. Tsai and her party, the DPP, pledge to lessen the island’s dependence on trade with China.
    Supporters attend a Tsai Ying-wen rally in Zhudong, Hsinchu County. Tsai and her party, the DPP, pledge to lessen the island’s dependence on trade with China.
  • A boy shields his ears from the noise of the crowd at a DPP rally for presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen in the Shalu district of Taichung.
    A boy shields his ears from the noise of the crowd at a DPP rally for presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen in the Shalu district of Taichung.
  • Chang An-lo, a.k.a. the “White Wolf,” right, a former Bamboo Union triad boss, at an August rally across the street from the Taiwan Ministry of Education (MOE). Now the leader of the China Unification Promotion Party, Chang stood in protest against students who occupied the MOE, scolding them for being pro-Japanese.
    Chang An-lo, a.k.a. the “White Wolf,” right, a former Bamboo Union triad boss, at an August rally across the street from the Taiwan Ministry of Education (MOE). Now the leader of the China Unification Promotion Party, Chang stood in protest against students who occupied the MOE, scolding them for being pro-Japanese.
  • Taiwan presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen says farewell to supporters after addressing a crowd in Zhudong, Hsinchu County.
    Taiwan presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen says farewell to supporters after addressing a crowd in Zhudong, Hsinchu County.
  • Supporters attend a Minkuotang rally in Zhubei City.
    Supporters attend a Minkuotang rally in Zhubei City.
  • Supporters wait for a DPP rally to begin in the Shalu district of Taichung.
    Supporters wait for a DPP rally to begin in the Shalu district of Taichung.
  • Supporters’ messages left for presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen on a wall at the headquarters of her Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei.
    Supporters’ messages left for presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen on a wall at the headquarters of her Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei.
  • Nellie Shen, 73, has lived in the United States for years, but returned to Taiwan for the 2016 election.
    Nellie Shen, 73, has lived in the United States for years, but returned to Taiwan for the 2016 election.
  • A campaign worker rigs a loudspeaker atop the car of Legislative Yuan candidate Zhou Fang-ru in Taipei.
    A campaign worker rigs a loudspeaker atop the car of Legislative Yuan candidate Zhou Fang-ru in Taipei.
  • Minkuotang supporters young and old wait on the edge of a rally in Zhubei City.
    Minkuotang supporters young and old wait on the edge of a rally in Zhubei City.
  • Political advertisements appear everywhere during election season. Here, a bus in Taipei displays Tsai Ying-wen endorsing parliamentary candidate Xiao Ya-tan.
    Political advertisements appear everywhere during election season. Here, a bus in Taipei displays Tsai Ying-wen endorsing parliamentary candidate Xiao Ya-tan.
  • A crowd assembles at a Minkuotang rally in Zhubei City.
    A crowd assembles at a Minkuotang rally in Zhubei City.
  • A Minkuotang rally-goer takes a cigarette break in Zhubei City.
    A Minkuotang rally-goer takes a cigarette break in Zhubei City.
  • A DPP campaign worker sweeps the street after a rally for Legislative Yuan candidate Zheng Yong-jin and presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen in Zhudong, Hsinchu County.
    A DPP campaign worker sweeps the street after a rally for Legislative Yuan candidate Zheng Yong-jin and presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen in Zhudong, Hsinchu County.

One such grassroots group is the New Power Party, a newcomer on the political scene that won a handful of seats in the legislature in the latest vote. It could try to harness “people power” once again if it sees the policies of a newly elected government looking too similar to those of the Nationalists.

“She has to walk a fine line and mollify China,” says William Stanton, former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, which has served as a de facto embassy since the U.S. switched recognition to Beijing in 1979.

Not everyone is convinced this balancing act will work.

“We will see whether the Democratic Progressive Party can maintain this relationship,” says Chao Chun-shan, Secretary General of the Foundation on Asia-Pacific Peace Studies, a policy think tank. “If there is a U-turn, other economic areas will be affected.”

While China and Taiwan remain politically divided, their economies have become increasingly integrated, playing key roles in the global supply chain. This has been nurtured by the policies of outgoing President Ma, who points with pride to a substantial reduction in cross-strait tension and the growing economic cooperation as major achievements of his administration.

China now accounts for about 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports, even as economic growth on the mainland slows. It is a key destination for investments from the island and is the primary source of Taiwan-bound tourists who take advantage of the hundreds of flights a week linking the two sides.

The flip side of this integration is that it gives China considerable political leverage in Taiwan.

Beijing has shown itself more than willing to apply pressure to companies operating in China. The fear of lost business is often enough to make corporate executives shy of even the most innocuous criticism of China. After a Taiwan pop singer displayed a tiny Taiwan flag on South Korean TV, there were angry denunciations on Chinese social media. On the eve of the election, the management company of the 16-year-old performer released a video showing her reading a public apology.

Tsai has said she wants to encourage investment and trade in other markets, such as Southeast Asia, to diversify the island’s economic ties and hopefully reduce some of the pressure Beijing can wield. But analysts noted that it will be hard to find substitutes for the huge China market in the near to medium term.

China could also apply political pressure to Taiwan’s small corps of diplomatic allies, encouraging them to switch recognition to Beijing. Gambia broke off relations with Taiwan two years ago in the hope of establishing ties with the mainland, but Beijing refused to grant recognition. If angered, Beijing could easily reverse course, and that might trigger a chain reaction of de-recognitions for Taiwan, which now has full diplomatic relations with fewer than two dozen smaller countries, mostly in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

“The next four years aren’t going to be easy,” says June Teufel Dreyer of the University of Miami.

And if President Tsai can’t deliver on some of the public’s expectations, in four years voters may hold her accountable.