Taiwan’s tense relationship with China shadows much of Taiwanesse politics and elections. Taiwan has been holding presidential elections since 1996. The presidential election system in Taiwan is first past the post. Presidents hold office for four years and can serve two terms (Wu 2020). There are two primary political parties in Taiwan, one being the Democratic Progressive Party and the other, Kuomintang. In addition, there are numerous small political parties. The Democratic Progressive Party has been in power since 2016 and is known as a more liberal party that opposes a close relationship with the People’s Republic of China. The recent January 2020 presidential election brought relations with China to the forefront of the campaign for both the ruling party and the opposition (Wu 2020). The re-election of incumbent president, Tsai Ing-wen showed the importance of free and fair elections in upholding strong democracies, even with the looming threat of China. Despite her power of incumbency, Ing-wen’s election was a win for Taiwan as a more democratic nation.
In January 2016, Tsai Ing-wen was elected president of Taiwan, replacing Kuomintang party member, Ma Ying-jeou. During her first term as president, Tsai Ing-wen passed a law declaring same-sex marriage legal, promoted defense spending, and worked towards a more independent relationship with China (Sudworth 2020). Her 2020 campaign was centered around a pro-democracy, anti-China positioning. The opposition party, Kuomintang nominated Han Kuo-yu for the presidential election. Han Kuo-yu’s campaign focused more on positive relations with China and his position as someone connected to the people. The third person running for president was James Soong of the People First Party. This attempt at a third party candidate did not prove successful with the people of Taiwan, despite Soong’s previous role as Governor of Taiwan (Templeman 2019).
While oftentimes incumbents have an easier chance of winning elections, by the second year of her first term, it was unclear if Tsai Ing-wen would be a strong competitor for the Democratic Progessive Party in 2020. Following midterm losses for the Democratic Progressive Party, many were unsure of their future successes. Yet, Tsai Ing-wen was able to pull through using her inclusive campaigning, power of incumbency, and strong anti-China policies. This is a prime example of how an incumbent can use tactics that are free and fair with regard to their incumbency and still win. This is a strong difference from other nations such as Ghana in the 2012 election where the incumbent barely won and was accused of tampering with the results using their power of incumbency to win.
Freedom House gives Taiwan a 93/100 Aggregate Freedom Score, showing the normalcy of free and fair electoral processes (Freedom House 2019). However, the 2020 election was not without threat of a democratic electoral process. Both major parties claimed the other was mis-using the internet and media to influence people’s opinions. In the most extreme case, there were threats that China was interfering in favor of Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang party (Sam 2020). However, overall this election was considered free and fair. Taiwan works hard for its democratic elections, shown through each step of the electoral system. Particularly for this 2020 election, the government was watching closely for any instances of election fraud.
One of the most interesting things about this 2020 presidential election in Taiwan was the importance placed on the results by the international community. This election was seen as a turning point regarding how Taiwanese people felt about the Taiwan and China relationship. Moreso, this election was seen as a signifier of how democratic Taiwan would be in the future (Templeman 2019). Tsai Ing-wen was supported by many democratic nations, including the United States for her values of democracy and separation from China. With regards to her re-election, Tsai Ing-wen stated that, “Taiwan is showing the world how much we cherish our free democratic way of life and how much we cherish our nation” (Sudworth, 2020). Clearly, Tsai Ing-wen associates free and fair elections with strong democracy.
The results of this election would certainly be described as a landslide. A clear victory in both the presidential and parliamentary elections went to the Democratic Progressive Party. Tsai Ing-wen won 57.13% of the vote (Sudworth 2020). The opposition, Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang party won 38.61% of the vote (Sudworth 2020). James Soong, the third party candidate, received 4.3% of the votes (Sudworth 2020). Taiwan experienced one of its highest voter turnout rates to date in this January 2020 election, 74.90% (Sudworth 2020). Many credit Tsai Ing-wen’s success in part to the timing and her framing of the 2019 Hong Kong protests. These intense anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong provided Tsai Ing-wen a timely chance to strengthen her standings on China and to reiterate the importance of the election for Taiwan’s democracy (Sudworth 2020).
Throughout her first term, Tsai Ing-wen acted as a champion for gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights. Her role as a female head of state comes at little surprise as Taiwan’s government has 38% women legislators (Sui 2016). While Taiwan does use a quota system to ensure women are involved in politics, Ing-wen was the first female president and is without a doubt that these quotas are typically exceeded (Sudworth 2020). Other countries, such as Bangladesh, have female Prime Ministers, but see little true gender equality within their parliaments. Especially considering China’s relation to Taiwan and their male dominated political system, it is impressive to have a strong female leading Taiwan in democracy and free elections.
Tsai Ing-wen’s victory in the 2020 election brought hope for a stronger, more independent democracy to Taiwan. Her strong policy positions, incumbency, the timing of other political events, and an impressive voter turn-out provided her the opportunity to succeed. Now, as we wait for her second term to begin in May, it will be crucial to see how China reacts to her policy goals. Her claim that Taiwan will never have a “one country, two systems” relationship with China must hold in order for her to be considered successful during this second term (Sudworth 2020). Looking forward, it is important to question how she and the party will maintain levels of voter participation and if democratic ideals will prevail in the instance that China retaliates. In following elections, will China’s presence and a potential lack of timely protests benefiting standpoints of the Democratic Progressive Party push Taiwan towards the Kuomintang party and further from independence and true democracy?
Sudworth, John. “Taiwan Election: Tsai Ing-Wen Wins Second Presidential Term.” BBC News, BBC, 11 Jan. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51077553.
Sam, Cedric. “Taiwan 2020 Election Results.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 11 Jan. 2020, www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2020-taiwan-election-results/.
Sui, Cindy. “Taiwan, the Place to Be a Woman in Politics.” BBC News, BBC, 20 May 2016, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-36309137.
“Taiwan.” Taiwan Country Report, 11 Mar. 2019, freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/taiwan.
Templeman, Kharis. “Taiwan’s January 2020 Elections: Prospects and Implications for China and the United States.” Brookings, Brookings, 31 Dec. 2019, www.brookings.edu/research/taiwans-january-2020-elections-prospects-and-implications-for-china-and-the-united-states/.
Wu, Felicia. “Factbox: How Does a Taiwan Election Work?” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 7 Jan. 2020, www.reuters.com/article/us-taiwan-election-factbox/factbox-how-does-a-taiwan-election-work-idUSKBN1Z62L7.