By GORDON G. CHANG
Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of Taiwan's main oppo...
Tsai Ing-wen is changing the political balance of power—and the nature of politics—in Taiwan. At the end of April, the former government official won the race to represent the Democratic Progressive Party in the island’s presidential election next January. The first women candidate for the top job in Taiwan, she is going up against the tall, dark, and handsome Ma Ying-jeou, the incumbent.
Not long ago, the DPP, as her opposition party is known, was on the ropes. It had governed the island for eight years under Chen Shui-bian but had resoundingly lost the 2008 presidential contest. Mr. Ma’s rejuvenated Kuomintang Party, which had ruled the island for more than 50 years, immediately signed a number of deals with Beijing as soon as it was back in power, and that was an initially popular move. It also began prosecuting officials in the previous DPP administration, even obtaining a conviction of Chen. The DPP, during the early days of the Ma administration, was badly split, mostly disorganized, and totally disheartened. Some wondered whether the party would ever become a force in Taiwan politics again.
Tsai, 54, took over the DPP as its chair on the same day Ma was inaugurated president. She skillfully rebuilt the party apparatus, mended divisions in the ranks, and engineered a series of surprising wins over the KMT, Ma’s party, in local elections. Momentum shifted to the DPP, largely as a result of her patient work.
Tsai was also fortunate to have received help from her adversary. The charismatic Ma tried to govern from above the fray, which worked at first but made him look like an empty suit from time to time. His disastrous response to Typhoon Morakot in August 2009, for instance, was his Hurricane Katrina. The KMT also lost support as it began to restrict freedom of the press and other rights, triggering concern both at home and abroad. Just as bad, the government went too far in prosecuting DPP officials, giving off the odor of a vendetta. Ma, therefore, is now starting to remind the electorate of KMT abuses after Chiang Kai-shek’s forces fled to Taiwan at the end of the 1940s.
There has also been growing angst over Ma’s China’s policy, which was supposed to stabilize the economy and give Taiwan more international recognition. Agreements with Beijing have had some positive economic effect, but Ma oversold them. Moreover, they look like they will permit China to dominate the Taiwanese economy. In any event, Beijing has not been more accommodating to Taipei during the Ma years, and this is beginning to hurt the president’s credibility.
Tsai is sometimes called “anti-China,” but the charge is misleading. The DPP’s Chen Shui-bian caused concern in Taiwan—and Washington—that he would disrupt the peace with his unpredictable policies. Partially as a result of rocky relations with Beijing during his two terms, the DPP today gets branded as a “troublemaker.”
So the China issue should be a source of Ma Ying-jeou’s electoral strength, but he is essentially reviving the KMT’s claims to “the Mainland,” and that looks unrealistic, silly even. As Ma leaves the center of the China issue, Tsai is tacking toward it. She still needs to convince voters the DPP has a sound cross-Straits policy, but she is defanging KMT arguments that her election will lead to war with China.
In polling over the course of decades, generally no more than 12% favor immediate unification with China—and mostly the number is in single digits. The rest want either the status quo—a de facto independent Taiwan—or “independence.” Ma says he is defending the island’s sovereignty, but he is generally seen as pushing unification, which puts him in an exceedingly small camp favoring the interests of “China” over those of “Taiwan.” That, of course, opens a strategic opportunity for his DPP challenger—and she is busy exploiting it.
Tsai will undoubtedly win next January if she claims the center of Taiwanese politics and thereby marginalizes the impact of issues on the race. There is one essential fact of Taiwan politics, and it favors the DPP. Ma’s KMT is the party of the interlopers, the “Mainlanders” who came to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. In 2009, 64.6% saw themselves as “Taiwanese” while only 11.5% considered themselves “Chinese” only. The KMT has tried “localization,” but its success beyond a few pockets has been limited.
Ma was born outside Taiwan, in Hong Kong, of Mainland parents. Tsai, on the other hand, is Taiwan-born of Hakka origin. When the biggest trend is the growth of “Taiwan” identity, Ma, true to his KMT roots, insists on saying the island is “Chinese,” something which increasingly grates on the electorate.
At this early moment, Tsai, who likes fast cars, is driving ahead in the polls, up more than 7% at the end of last month. Polling, however, also shows that most voters think she will eventually lose to Ma. There are several reasons for these seemingly inconsistent results. First, she holds a strong lead among younger voters, who are less likely to cast ballots. Second, Beijing “gets a vote,” and it has just begun making public comments to tilt the election Ma’s way.
Third, Ma looks and sounds like a president and Tsai, short and quiet, does not. She needs to stand toe-to-toe with him in debate and win, something she did not do in April 2010 when they argued about China relations. Yet she is learning to be a politician, and after disappointment with two charismatic leaders—Chen and Ma—the Taiwanese electorate might turn away from “flash” and vote for “competence.”
So don’t be surprised when Tsai, who is engineering a stunning change in the politics of her nation, goes into the history books as Taiwan’s first female leader.
Follow me on Twitter @GordonGChang