Politics & Protest SinoBeat

Explainer: The 2016 Taiwanese presidential and legislative elections and why they matter

On Saturday, Taiwanese voters will cast their ballots in presidential and legislative elections, which are likely to see a  victory for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). HKFP offers readers some background to the elections ahead of our live blog coverage on Saturday.

March 2008: Ma becomes President. Ma Ying-jeou of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), won a resounding 58% of the vote and was sworn in as President two months later. A rapid improvement in cross-straits relations and numerous trade pacts followed, and Ma was re-elected in 2012. Yet, faced with economic stagnation and popular scepticism over his China-friendly policies, his approval ratings plummeted to as low as 9%, according to polls conducted by Era News in September 2013.

Ma Ying-jeou

Ma Ying-jeou. Photo: Presidentialoffice via Flickr.

March 2014: the Sunflower Movement. Students and civic groups stormed the Legislative Yuan – the Taiwan Government’s legislative branch – and occupied it for 23 days, in response to the attempted ratification of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement between Taiwan and mainland China without a clause-by-clause review. The pact has been rolled back since and the two major parties have not been able to agree on a review process.

legislative yuan

Legislative Yuan in April 2014. Photo: Artemas Liu via Flickr.

November 2014: In Taiwan’s 2014 local elections, also known as the nine-in-one elections, the KMT suffered a crushing defeat. The party previously controlled 14 of 22 municipalities and counties, but won only six in this election. Ma Ying-jeou resigned from his post as Chairperson of the KMT following the defeat.

Ko Wen-je

Ko Wen-je, the non-partisan Mayor of Taipei elected in November 2014. Photo: Zhenghu Feng via Flickr.

October 2015: In a highly controversial decision, the KMT decided to drop its original presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, nominated just three months earlier. Hung’s approval ratings were lagging far behind those of DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen, partly because she advocated stronger ties with mainland China at a time when some Taiwanese voters were wary of the island becoming too close to Beijing.

Hung Hsiu-chu

Hung Hsiu-chu. Photo: Apple Daily.

November 2015: Ma-Xi Meeting. Leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, held a historic meeting, the first since the KMT fled to Taiwan after its defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. The meeting took place in Singapore and the two leaders addressed each other as “Mister” – rather than their official titles – due to the political sensitivities.

ma-xi meeting protest

Protests against the Ma-Xi Meeting. Photo: 蕭長展.

We now turn to the more technical aspects of the elections:

How will Taiwan’s new leaders be elected?

Voters will have three votes on Saturday: to elect the President, their local legislator, and in support of a party’s legislators.

Elected directly by popular vote since 1996, the President of Taiwan – formally the Republic of China – serves for a four-year term. He or she wields powers over the military, foreign relations, and ministerial appointments in the Executive Yuan, the executive branch of the Taiwanese Government.

The legislative election is more complicated. Among a total of 113 legislators, 73 are elected by voters in geographically-defined single-seat districts. In an effort at positive discrimination, a further six legislators, representing two districts, will be elected by Taiwan’s indigenous population, original inhabitants of the island before migration from mainland China in the 17th century.

The remaining 34 are legislators-at-large, who are not tied to geographical districts, but to political parties. Each party presents a ranked list of candidates, and the top-ranked candidates will be elected as legislators, depending on the proportion of the party vote received.

All Taiwanese citizens aged 20 or above are eligible to vote.

Who will be running?

Eric Chu Li-lun, a US-educated accounting professor, replaced Hung Hsiu-chu as the KMT presidential candidate in October 2015. Chu is currently the Mayor of New Taipei, the most populous city in Taiwan, and has also served as KMT Chairperson since January 2015. His running partner is Jennifer Wang Ju-hsuan, a labour and human rights lawyer.

Eric Chu Li-lun

Eric Chu Li-lun (right). Photo: 志強 胡 via Flickr.

Tsai Ing-wen, a UK-educated lawyer, has been the DPP’s Chairperson since 2008. She was the party’s presidential candidate in 2012, when she lost to Ma Ying-jeou with 45.63% of the popular vote. Tsai has competed against Chu before, losing by 5% of the vote in the 2010 New Taipei mayoral elections. Tsai’s running partner is doctor Chen Chien-jen, known for his contributions to controlling the SARS epidemic in 2003.

Tsai Ing-wen

Tsai Ing-wen / Photo: davidreid via Flickr.

James Soong Chu-yu is the founder and Chairman of the People First Party (PFP), which split from the KMT in 2000. An electoral veteran, Soong was a presidential candidate in 2000 and 2012, and vice presidential candidate in 2004. His running partner is Hsu Hsin-ying of the newly-established Minkuotang (literally the ‘Republican Party’).

James Soong

James Soong Chu-yu. Photo: Yang Ming via VOA.

Other parties are competing in the legislative elections, some of which were founded by activists in the aftermath of the Sunflower Movement. One of the highest-profile groups is the New Power Party (NPP), headed by legal scholar Huang Kuo-chang and heavy metal vocalist Freddy Lim Chang-zuo. To an extent, the NPP coordinates with the DPP to avoid fielding candidates in the same constituencies.

What are the predictions?

It is widely expected that Tsai will win the presidency. The final opinion polls conducted by television station TVBS on January 4, 2016 (before a polling blackout officially began) show that Tsai was supported by 53% of voters, compared with 31% for Chu and 16% for Soong.

It is less certain whether the DPP – or a pan-green coalition headed by the DPP – can secure over half of the seats in the Legislative Yuan. If it does, this would mark the first time in Taiwanese history that the KMT loses control over the legislature. Smaller and newer parties, such as the NPP, may also win legislative seats.

taiwan election results

Election results in 2008, 2012 and 2014, featuring the KMT (blue), DPP (green), Non-Partisan Solidarity Union (pink), and independent candidates (black). Photo: tjs2012 via Wikicommons.

What is at stake?

The future of cross-straits relations is closely watched by the international media, with The Economist predicting an end to the truce which has been in place with mainland China since 2008. Although traditionally the KMT promotes unification and the DPP independence, both parties have moderated their stances in favour of upholding the status quo in recent years.

The parties’ attitudes  towards the ‘1992 Consensus’ between Taiwan and mainland China remains a key difference between them. The KMT defines the consensus as accepting the principle that both Taiwan and the mainland belong to one ‘China’, but that each side of the straits interprets the meaning of ‘China’ differently. The DPP accepts the ‘historical fact’ that Taiwan and the mainland held talks in 1992, where they agreed to ‘accept each other’s differences’, but maintains that the ‘1992 Consensus’ was invented by the KMT, and is only ‘one [of several] options’ for the development of cross-strait relations. Beijing has stated that it is willing to negotiate with any group that supports the consensus and opposes independence.

independence activists

Independence activists in Taiwan. Photo: Stella Peng.

There are some differences in the domestic policies that the parties advocate to lift Taiwan out of its current economic doldrums. The KMT, DPP and PFP all emphasise industrial innovation. Yet Eric Chu has also made promises such as increasing the minimum monthly wage from TW$20,008 to TW$30,000 within four years. James Soong’s economic objective is to ‘overtake Korea and chase Singapore’. Tsai Ing-wen and Chu have promoted housing policies respectively centred upon constructing social housing and offering home-buying subsidies.

Finally, the results will be influenced by generational change. Though Taiwan is an aging society, young people have also become more politically active. Turnout among voters aged 20-40 increased from an average of 60% in previous elections, to 74-78% in the 2014 local elections, according to Taiwan Thinktank.

Since the last general elections four years ago, 1.29 million citizens (6.8% of the electorate) have come of age, and are eligible to vote for the first time on Saturday. These new voters have grown up exclusively in Taiwan’s democratic era, and their identities, values and formative experiences will be reflected in the upcoming polls.

Explainer: The 2016 Taiwanese presidential and legislative elections and why they matter