by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Taiwan People News

WHAT SHOULD we expect from a Tsai presidency, now that Tsai Ing-Wen is president of Taiwan?  Now may be a time of celebration and rightly so, but perhaps we should not hope for too much?

As previously discussed, on the crucial matter of cross-strait relations and cross-strait economic relations, Tsai may not differ too much from Ma Ying-Jeou and the KMT.  Tsai may have been emphatic thus far on her desire to join the American-led TPP, perhaps in order to bring Taiwan economically and geopolitically closer to America.  But Tsai also wishes to enter the China-led RCEP in spite of that—as we see with the CSSTA or AIIB free trade agreements which the Ma Ying-Jeou administration tried to push for—China would certainly use a free trade agreement signed with Taiwan in order to diminish Taiwan’s political independence through economic means.

It was also part of Eric Chu’s election platform for Taiwan to join the RCEP, but Taiwanese have not yet called Tsai to task for her wish for Taiwan to join the RCEP.  Tsai has not emphasized that her economic program was largely the same as Chu and the KMT’s, in calling for Taiwan joining the American-led TPP, the China-led RCEP, and signing FTAs with Europe.  Tsai has instead emphasized the “New Southward Policy” aimed at building stronger economic and political ties with Southeast Asian countries, an element lacking in the KMT’s economic platform, but in emphasizing this aspect one wonders whether this has served as a convenient smokescreen to disguise where Tsai’s economic program otherwise does not substantially differ from Chu and the KMT’s.

Tsai Ing-Wen’s “Walking with Children” campaign ad was clearly targeted at civil society activists and used the rhetoric of hope and change, suggesting that progress had come to a halt in Taiwan

If it is that Taiwanese voters were more concerned with domestic issues of lack of economic growth took than cross-strait relations or foreign relations in this past election, Tsai has promised to revitalize the economy.  Part of Tsai’s campaign advertising suggested that the social issues of the past year in Taiwan were a result of halted progress, likely with the hint that halted progress was economic in nature.  This is probably true, given the direct relation between worsening economic conditions in Taiwan and social unrest, inclusive of recent memory’s major youth demonstrations this past August with the Ministry of Education occupation and in March of last year with the Sunflower Movement.

Yet if in general Tsai’s economic program does not differ substantially from the KMT’s, we also see similar calls for an emphasis on Taiwan’s tech and biotechnology industries, encouraging innovation among young entrepreneurs, and calling for a streamlining of the education system in order to provide individuals with different levels of education with employment opportunities once out of school.  It is about how to achieve such goals that KMT and DPP policy differs.

The New Southwards Policy seems to be the main point of difference between Tsai’s economic policy and that of the KMT, but we already saw an unsuccessful attempt at building closer ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries under Lee Teng-Hui.  This was the first Southwards Policy.  That Tsai would reenact Lee Teng-Hui’s past policies may not be surprising, given Tsai’s longtime ties with Lee Teng-Hui, sometimes seen as her mentor.  Tsai first rose to prominence as the head of a secret study group formed by Lee while he was president of Taiwan to establish a means for Taiwan to seek de facto independence. [1]  Lee’s Southwards Policy was an attempt to avoid Taiwan becoming overly economically dependent on China, as is Tsai’s, which does reflect Tsai’s aims to maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independence.  But Lee’s Southwards Policy was not successful and we will see as to whether Tsai is any more successful.

PhotoCreditReutersFormer Taiwanese president Chen Shui-Bian. Photo credit: Reuters

All the same, Tsai will probably compromise in some form.  To avoid the fate of being perceived as a second Chen Shui-Bian, that is, a dangerous warmonger bent on realizing Taiwanese independence even if it means war with China, Tsai will present herself as not seeking to change the status quo of cross-strait relations in any dramatic way.  But this may mean preserving the fictive construct of the KMT’s 1992 Consensus, except “DPP-izing” it in a way.

Indeed, during the Ma-Xi meeting in November, Tsai was also notably muted in her criticisms of Ma and expressed the desire to meet with Xi herself—not in the supposedly neutral territory of Singapore outside of Taiwan or China—but in Beijing.  Tsai justified this desire on the basis of that this would be the meeting of two equal heads of state.  Yet of course apart from that Beijing seems unlikely to agree to meeting with Tsai in the near future, this would be a meeting in which Tsai would have to go to Beijing as the lesser national head, there being little hope of Xi Jinping coming to visit Tsai in Taipei.

And if it is that Tsai came to power by offering a progressive social vision which appealed to the civic-minded Sunflower Generation and to Taiwanese society writ large, the Sunflower Movement having served as crystallizing both Taiwan’s economic woes and anxiety about cross-strait relations, it is that Tsai will necessarily have to compromise on parts of that progressive vision.  To begin with, it is a basic question as to whether Tsai can live up to the social vision she offered during campaigning, political reality being what it is.  For example, Tsai made public support for gay marriage a crucial aspect of campaign.  This was in part a calculation made on the basis of the fact that the attitudes in Taiwanese society would now seem to be generally accepting of gay marriage, hence making it a safe public position.

But Tsai’s public support for gay marriage was still surprising in light of the elements of the DPP which would be vehemently opposed to gay marriage, such as those connected to the Presbyterian church.  It is another matter entirely, however, as to whether Tsai can spearhead the legalization of gay marriage in Taiwan. Tsai would certainly not be able to pass legislation by fiat legalizing gay marriage as president.  Whether laws to legalize for gay marriage can be passed through legislature will depend on how the legislature votes.

On this and other issues of social progress or reform, we will see as to Tsai has made empty promises of for the sake of getting elected, or actually stands realistic possibility of achieving what she claims to aspire to.  And we also face the possibility that Tsai may not actually wish to realize her social vision right away in order that she can still be reelected to a second term on the promise of finally realizing the social vision she promised in her first term.  Certainly, this would not be unusual behavior for a head of state hoping for a full two terms in office.

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 4.03.26 PM 1Tsai during the final presidential debate. Photo credit: CTV

Indeed, looking at past campaigning by Tsai and her performance during presidential debates, we find a lot of the appeals to the rhetoric of hope and change but very little about how to concretely achieve legal changes.  Given that Tsai’s victory seemed inevitable from the beginning with the self-destruction of the KMT in he past year, Tsai was never really forced into concrete debate with her political opponents.  Tsai instead sought to say as little as possible in order to minimize the amount of ammo that her political enemies would be able to use against her when she is in office.  One also speculates that Tsai did not employ hard-hitting or especially critical attacks against the KMT on the matter of its internal corruption in campaigning because of there being no need to, leaving her to save it as ammo for her run for a second term.

What now for the DPP now that Tsai is president?  Tsai’s clean background aside, DPP is a political party like any other, with vested interests in it.  During the first DPP presidency of Taiwan, under the Chen Shui-Bian administration, DPP politicians took the fact that they had become the ruling party as their cue to line their pockets through developing crony capitalist ties with companies using their political power.  This was a way in which the DPP stepped into roles now vacated by a KMT that had lost the presidency and, for the time being, needed to regroup.  The smear attacks of the KMT aside, Tsai herself is by all indications guiltless of personal corruption, but Tsai would very likely not be able to hold all elements of her party in check, so it seems like this phenomenon might occur again.

PhotoCreditStormMediaTsai making a public appearance with Freddy Lim of the New Power Party. Photo credit: Storm Media

If Tsai aimed to incorporate young people in her campaign drawn from Taiwanese civil society and not to go directly up against new, third parties that had emerged from civil society, pressure is mounting within the DPP to break ties with these new parties, the so-called Third Force.  The DPP was willing to withdraw from districts in which it historically had low chances of winning and endorse a Third Force candidate that might have a better chance of winning instead.  This was a rational calculation and it was hoped that the Third Force might be cooperative with the DPP in the future on the basis of the DPP’s willingness to accommodate it.  One speculates that the DPP also hoped to in some way co-opt the Third Force by appealing to the young people that comprise Third Force political parties in appearing to be flexible as a political party.

However, now the DPP is getting antsy that it will lose party votes to Third Force parties and be unable to hold a majority in the legislature on its own.  With the presence of Third Force parties in legislature, the DPP would be forced to negotiate with them, adding a layer of complexity to legislative decision-making which would otherwise be much simpler for the DPP.

So it is, then, that during her speech during the large-scale campaign rally before election day, Tsai called on Taiwanese voters to support the brave young men and women who had stood up for Taiwan in the Sunflower Movement and through their concern with civic issues in Taiwan such as land evictions in Dapu, Miaoli, or the death of military cadet Hung Chung-Chiu—but stressed that these brave young men and women were part of the DPP and were its young political candidates!  So Taiwanese voters should vote DPP on the party list, as Tsai would have it.

maxresdefault (10)Tsai Ing-Wen at her campaign rally the day before elections. Photo credit:

Certainly, many post-Sunflower movement activists went into the DPP, and some became electoral candidates of the DPP. But the key leaders of the Sunflower Movement, organizers in demonstration of land evictions in Dapu, Miaoli, and those who called for justice in regards to the death of Hung Chung-Chiu were largely the original founders of the Third Force parties.  If some have suggested that the Third Force would eventually turn on the DPP, it may be that the DPP first turned on the small force.  So much for accommodating the young and providing a space for their voices to be heard in society, then, if not through the party machine of the DPP.  No surprise, then, that the DPP has been unhappy about recent labor protests lately so close to elections when they do not occur under its control and do not conform to its narrative of being on the side of civic demonstrators in Taiwan.

Perhaps it is time to go back to being equally critical of the DPP and KMT for Taiwanese activists, then.  This may be what a Tsai victory means, that it is time to go back to being critical of both major political parties in Taiwan.  Whether it is a KMT or DPP government in office, our role is to be the ones who always voice the demand that the government to answer to the people who voted them into power.  This will not change now that Tsai Ing-Wen is president of Taiwan.

[1] Andrew James Nathan and James Scobell, China’s Search for Security, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 232.