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Politicking, polls, and Taiwan’s presidential primary: Can Tsai Ing-wen survive in 2020?

For politicos an election never seems far off. When the polls close and the results are announced for one election, the campaigning for the next one begins.

Last month, the country’s Central Election Commission announced that Taiwan’s Presidential and Legislative Yuan elections will be held on 11 January 2020. Yet the campaigning for these races really kicked off last November after the Taiwanese public cast their votes for council and mayoral candidates.

Tsai Ing-wen

Tsai Ing-wen. File photo: Taiwan Gov’t.

Prior to the November results, the question of who would be elected President in 2020 was significantly less interesting than it is now. Voters gave the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who hold the executive and legislature, a drubbing well beyond the typical kicking an incumbent gets.

The DPP lost half their mayors across the island to a surprisingly resurgent Kuomintang (KMT). The prize of the night for the nationalist KMT was the maverick Han Kuo-yu’s gain in the DPP’s southern stronghold Kaohsiung.

As I explained to friends unfamiliar with Taiwanese politics, this was the equivalent of a Southern populist Republican winning the state of Massachusetts.

Ever since the green wave which brought President Tsai Ing-wen to power, and gave the DPP a majority in the Legislative Yuan for the first time in the country’s history, a quick KMT comeback was written off. November’s results changed this. Moreover, it brought into question Tsai’s re-selection as the DPP’s presidential nominee.

Enter Lai Ching-te, the former deputy of Tsai, who – last month – entered the race to become the DPP’s Presidential candidate. While a run for the presidency was widely expected of him at some point, this challenge came as a surprise to many within the party.

Taiwan elections rally

A rally before the Taiwan elections in November 2018. Photo: Apple daily.

Prior to serving as the country’s Premier, he had, since 2010, been mayor of Tainan, the city which he had represented in the Legislative Yuan for the previous eleven years.

While a seasoned politician, and a long-time “rising star” within the party, his time at the top of national political life was short. After the November elections Lai stood down to take responsibility for the DPP’s poor performance – a noble act which, of course, had nothing to do with distancing himself from a leader who he planned to oust.

Some, high-profile Taiwanese politicians have expressed surprise that Lai has chosen to challenge Tsai for the 2020 nomination, although rumblings from anti-Tsai deep-Green traditionalists within the DPP, who have consistently criticised Tsai’s more cautious approach to cross-Strait relations, always made some form of inter-party contest likely.

After the November vote, key figures who constitute this “old guard” called on the party to replace Tsai as the presidential candidate for 2020. Lai having left the Tsai administration as well as being a self-declared “political worker for Taiwan independence” made him an obvious candidate for this grouping within the DPP to unite behind to beat Tsai.

So far this appears to be working out for the traditionalist deep-Greens. Lai is ahead in one poll, published on the day of his announcement for the presidency by pro-Independence Taiwan Brain Trust (TBT), which gives Lai a strong lead over President Tsai in terms of voter preference – a whopping 50 per cent to Tsai’s 29 per cent.

The surveys also show Lai, unlike Tsai, beating potential KMT presidential candidates in a head-to-head, contest, including former New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu and the country’s longest-serving legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng.

Lai Ching-te

Lai Ching-te. Photo: Apple Daily.

While these results, which show Tsai’s current unpopularity, correspond with other polling conducted before Lai entered the race, the TBT may overstate the popularity gap between both candidates.

As noted by political scientist Nathan Batto, the picture is more complicated, with Lai’s huge lead over Tsai in a head-to-head being inflated massively by people who said that they were not planning to vote for the DPP anyway in 2020.

This is important given the unusual method adopted by the DPP to select their presidential candidate which dismisses the opinions of die-hard KMT and DPP supporters. Instead the ‘swing voters’, typically those in the centre-ground, are given the power.

In mid-April, assuming efforts to resolve the matter behind closed doors fail, the party will conduct a professional poll to test the primary candidates against potential KMT candidates.

Surveying interparty match-ups means the result will not be determined by a head-to-head race between the two DPP politicians. If only one DPP contestant can beat the most KMT candidates, that person wins the nomination.

If more than one beats the KMT candidates or if no one beats them, then the person with the highest percentage of supporters wins.  The survey counts for everything and its result is binding. This method should prioritise the opinions of KMT-DPP switchers and thus identify the candidate with the greatest chance of winning.

In theory, this should weaken Lai’s bid, given his more overt pro-Independence stance is further away from the large centre-ground of voters who wish to maintain the island’s status quo. Nevertheless, cross-Strait policy seems to be the area where Lai is going on the attack.

After submitting his nomination, Lai told the media that he was determined to hold the Presidency and the Legislative Yuan for the DPP to ensure that Taiwan’s position vis-a-vis China was not threatened and that the island would “not become a second Hong Kong, a second Tibet”.

Furthermore, so far the only other issue which he has sought to differentiate himself from Tsai on is a pardon for the corrupt former DPP President Chen Shui-bian. This is a stance which, again, plays to his deep-Green traditional base rather the moderate middle.

Eric Chu

Eric Chu. Photo: Apple Daily.

This approach would make sense in the American system where in many states candidates need to win over registered supporters rather than the general public, but the DPP’s primary system should make appeasing the already converted less necessary.

Taiwan’s large ‘status quo’ centre-ground should mean that going Greener than Tsai will not be a primary winning strategy. Although for now, the polls say differently.

A short campaign does not leave a lot of time for minds to be changed. Yet Lai may run into other problems as the candidates thrash out their differences, particularly if his critique focuses largely on cross-Strait affairs.

Firstly, it is Tsai’s domestic agenda and performance which has made her administration so unpopular. Different voters will have different grievances depending on where they sit on the political spectrum. Criticisms range from not being bold enough on equal marriage, to going too far with difficult pension reforms.

Yet it will be tricky for Lai to distance himself from this record given that while Premier he was the public face of these DPP initiatives.

Domestic policy is also a tricky area given his more conservative economic and social views, which stand at odds with the more progressive politics of younger voters, who should be supporting his bid given they share his deeper-Green cross-Strait outlook.

This, in part, may explain why young DPP councillors and overseas post-Sunflower Movement groups have rallied behind Tsai last month. If Tsai can hold these voters in her coalition with the moderate and middle-generation lawmakers, many of whom made up the 34 legislators who signed a letter supporting her re-election, then she will have real momentum.

Particularly, if the New Tide faction, of which Lai is a member, fractures during the primary – as it appears it might.

Critiquing Tsai on cross-Strait issues may also be unwise given this is the area where she appears stronger. After all she was a diplomat prior to her political career, and has spent three years putting her international credentials to the test. With some success it should be added.

Most recently, following the disastrous November elections it was Tsai’s strong rebuttal to Xi Jinping’s threat of annexation which saw a sharp rise in support for her presidency. This is a position which she reiterated last month, to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sunflower Movement, when she wrote that Taiwan will not accept the ‘one country, two systems’ formula devised by Beijing while she remains President.

Wang Jin-pyng

Wang Jin-pyng. Photo: Apple Daily.

Tsai is undoubtedly aware that this is one of her most popular messages. When she submitted her nomination last Thursday she stressed that any President must be able to protect Taiwan’s democracy and maintain the peace, and that such a task required a person familiar with international affairs and capable of coordinating with other countries.

She then proceeded to walk the walk, in a way only an incumbent can, with an overseas trip to Palau, Nauru, and the Marshall Islands.

Approval for her to stopover in Hawaii during this trip, alongside tacit support by the Trump Administration for Taiwan’s request to buy fighter jets, demonstrates the goodwill towards Taiwan in Washington which has been fostered during Tsai’s time in office.

The extent to which Tsai can take credit for this attitude towards the island is debatable. Nevertheless, she is seen as someone who can project a positive image of Taiwan as a democratic ally and a partner for peace.

Lai has no diplomatic chops to boast of. With two weeks to go, being weaker on foreign policy while not having a distinct domestic agenda does not seem like a winning combination for Lai. The appeal which derives from not being Tsai may not sustain him through the primary, as voters are naturally inclined to drift back towards the incumbent.

However, for now, the polls still favour Lai, a man with a strong record of winning. He was elected four times to the legislature, outperformed the DPP presidential vote in his area to survive the 2008 KMT surge, and in 2010 came out on top in a competitive primary to secure the DPP nomination for mayor of Tainan.

People like to back a winner – and at the moment Lai appears to be the frontrunner.

Whatever happens during the next few months, as the campaigns gather pace, the run-up to 2020 promises to be exciting. With the KMT yet to select their candidate, and a possible entry by Independent Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, Taiwan’s political system could be really shaken up.

Flag raising ceremony Taiwan Presidential Office

Flag raising ceremony outside Taiwan Presidential Office on January 1, 2019. Photo: Flickr/presidentialoffice.

Last year’s local elections brought into question much conventional thinking about Taiwanese politics, namely the North-South divide of KMT and DPP support.

Lai Ching-te’s bid to become President has again strayed from precedent. Neither Chen, in 2004, nor Ma Ying-jeou, in 2008, were challenged for the presidential nomination.

This time President Tsai has not been afforded this luxury as the incumbent – whether this will make her bid for re-election, assuming she wins the DPP’s nomination, easier remains to be seen. If Lai wins his first challenge will be to unite the party around him – without that, winning in 2020 may prove difficult.

Politicking, polls, and Taiwan's presidential primary: Can Tsai Ing-wen survive in 2020?