Election result shows Taiwan is out of China’s grasp

Voters in Taiwan have demonstrated that conciliation with Beijing is no longer a useful electoral strategy. Future presidential candidates, from both sides of Taiwan’s political divide, will have to prove that they can stand up for Taiwan against China. That, as much as incumbent Tsai Ing-wen’s overwhelming victory, may be the big message out of Saturday’s poll.

Winning just over 57% of the vote, Tsai levelled a stunning defeat on her rival candidate Han Kuo-yu—who could convince only one in four voters that he was the right person for the job.

At face value, it was a landslide victory for Tsai and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as well as a major blow to the rival Kuomintang (KMT, also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party), which adheres more closely to Beijing’s ideology. However, a deeper look at the results reveals a different story.

Saturday’s election was not only for the presidency, but for Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan. The DPP secured 61 seats in the legislature, picking up 34.0% of the vote. The KMT won 38 seats, with 33.4% of the vote. Put differently, the DPP won more seats than the KMT, but the KMT still got a sizeable proportion of votes.

The KMT’s surprising vote share was despite the party causing controversy over the candidates it put forward for election to the Legislative Yuan. On what’s colloquially known as the ‘party list’, the KMT had nominated candidates that many saw as unusually pro-Beijing (for example, one was a former military officer who had attended an event organised by the Chinese Communist Party). That, combined with mudslinging from the KMT’s deputy secretary-general, brought the party’s integrity into question.

Despite poor judgement from its senior leadership, the KMT managed to do reasonably well in the Legislative Yuan. With nearly 40 seats, it will remain a credible opposition in a DPP-controlled legislature.

In this respect, Saturday’s election wasn’t so much a resounding victory for the DPP and defeat for the KMT as it was an endorsement of Tsai Ing-wen and a rebuke of Han Kuo-yu. The KMT remains a potent political force that could rebrand itself to win future elections in Taiwan.

Explaining how the KMT could win future elections requires an understanding of why Tsai won on Saturday. Unlike most Taiwanese elections, events in Hong Kong meant that 2020’s poll was a referendum on how to maintain Taiwan’s sovereignty and hard-won democracy. Tsai won because she proved herself to be a steady hand on relations with China and demonstrated her resolve when faced with Beijing’s threats of coercion. Han lost because he appeared erratic and his views on ‘unification’ with Beijing seemed dangerously old hat. The problem was not the KMT, but the candidate it put forward.

However, the KMT can’t win future elections simply by knowing why it lost on Saturday; it also needs to know why it has won in the past. While there are useful precedents from the KMT’s history under Lee Teng-hui, the most important victory for the KMT was its most recent win in November 2018’s local elections.

That election was fought largely on domestic issues such as the cost of living and labour reform, and the KMT offered a more conservative alternative to the DPP’s style of progressive politics. For example, the KMT’s candidate for mayor of Taipei, Ting Shou-chung, branded himself as ‘boring but useful’ and nearly beat a strong incumbent in Ko Wen-je. Rebranding itself as a trustworthy, conservative voice that’s still able to attract floating voters could be one way for the KMT to regain the upper hand.

Given the damage done to its reputation over this election season, the KMT will need time for any makeover to be successful. The party could keep its head down in opposition and focus on grooming a candidate who is completely different to Han and capable of winning the next presidential election in 2024. There are a few people who could play that role.

One such politician is the mayor of New Taipei City, Hou You-yi. Hou was a career police officer who in 2006 became the youngest person to be appointed to head Taiwan’s National Police Agency. Once courted by the DPP, Hou is yet to publicly affirm Beijing’s so-called 1992 consensus that Taiwan and the mainland form ‘one China’. Should Hou distinguish himself as a good manager who’s willing to stand up for Taiwan’s autonomy, he may prove to be a viable candidate for the KMT.

Of course, a lot can happen in four years. Jason Hsu is another person to watch. As a co-founder of TEDx Taipei, Hsu is one of the KMT’s few young politicians who might be able to appeal to Taiwan’s youth. Whoever becomes KMT leader going into the next presidential poll in 2024, he or she will need to assure the public that Taiwan’s sovereignty is an issue on which there will be no compromise.

The KMT will remain significant in Taiwanese politics only if it stands up for Taiwan against China. To fight and win elections, the party must demonstrate its willingness to defend Taiwan’s autonomy whatever the cost may be. That likely means selecting a leader who does not recognise Beijing’s ‘1992 consensus’ and is willing to advocate for Taiwan’s sovereignty around the globe.

A KMT that can transform itself into a party for Taiwan and cease being a party for Chinese nationalism will be the ultimate sign of maturity in Taiwanese democracy. For Beijing, however, such a KMT would represent its most consequential defeat. Short of war, China may have just permanently lost Taiwan.