Ahead of the 2020 presidential elections in Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen and her independence-leaning Democratic People’s Party (DPP) will need some serious self-reflection and unity after their defeat in the mid-term local elections.  

The November 24 elections saw the Beijing-leaning, opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party securing victory in 15 of the 22 cities and counties, including the DPP stronghold of Kaohsiung, while the DPP lost seven of the 13 cities and counties it previously held. The DPP’s share of the vote also fell from 56% to 39% since the 2016 presidential election, while the KMT share rose from 31% to 49%.

Tsai’s defeat obliged her to step down as party chairperson, and for Premier Lai Ching-te and Presidential Office Secretary-General Chen Chu to offer their resignations.  Tsai, however, will retain her position as president, and both Lai and Chen decided to stay on in the interest of party unity and stability ahead of the general elections in 2020, although there are rumors of Lai’s impending departure. Despite taking personal responsibility for her party’s defeat, she remains a strong candidate for the 2020 presidential elections but will require a better understanding of her party’s failures.

Some political analysts have blamed her party’s defeat on a stagnant economy with flat wages, her unpopular revisions to the labor law and public pension reform, a failure to act progressively on LGBTQ issues, election interference from the mainland, and a surprisingly resurgent KMT.  

Other pundits tend to simply blame her refusal to endorse the so-called “1992 Consensus,” referring to the “One China” principle (with potentially different interpretations), as a potential factor, though most Taiwanese appear split over what that actually means and how it will play out. After Tsai assumed office in May 2016, Beijing cut off all communications with Taipei and ramped up its efforts to isolate Taiwan through “namefare” – a battle over the use of “Taiwan” by international companies such as airlines and at sporting and diplomatic venues.  

Beijing also stepped up its military intimidation of the Taiwanese through enhanced military drills in the Taiwan Strait and circumnavigations of the island by its military ships and aircraft. Visits to Taiwan by mainland tourists were also discouraged, orders from the mainland for agricultural products were reduced, and Beijing applied economic incentives to woo a number of diplomatic allies away from Taipei.   

Unequivocal win for Beijing

For these reasons, some members of the Western press and most commentators in China consider the election results an unequivocal win for Beijing and a validation of its hardline stance, as voters shifted toward the Beijing-friendly KMT.  

Before Beijing breaks out the baijiu, it should note that the Taiwanese may have simply been voting for change from a deeply unpopular leadership.  Furthermore, only a small minority of Taiwanese are keen on unification. According to a 2018 poll conducted by Taiwan’s National Chengchi University (NCCU), a mere 3% of those polled chose “unification as soon as possible” or “maintain status quo, move toward unification” (12.5%).   

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) warned Beijing the day after the elections not to  “misjudge” the Taiwan people’s expectations for cross-Taiwan Strait relations:

“The government and people of Taiwan remain committed to safeguarding the peaceful status quo across the strait, which is Taiwan’s basic stance and the consensus of its people and the hopes pinned on Taiwan by the international community.”

Besides the “blue wave” of the “pan-blue” KMT victories, Beijing’s high hopes may have also been influenced by the results of one referendum in particular that asked voters, “Do you agree Taiwan should use the name ‘Taiwan’ to participate in all international sporting events and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo?” The referendum was put forth by the Team Taiwan Campaign and led by Chi Cheng, a famous Taiwanese track-and-field athlete and Olympic medallist. The referendum, which the DPP steered clear of backing, failed by a 55 to 45 margin, voted down by 5.77 million to 4.76 million.   

Seeing it as a proxy for an independence vote, much like a similar referendum in 2008 on applying to the United Nations as “Taiwan,” Beijing was watching this vote with great interest

Seeing it as a proxy for an independence vote, much like a similar referendum in 2008 on applying to the United Nations as “Taiwan,” Beijing was watching this vote with great interest. Following the results of the referendum, Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, commented that “the setback means that promoting Taiwan independence at the cost of the interests of Taiwanese athletes was doomed to fail.   

Whatever the reasons behind the failure of the referendum to pass, Taiwanese missed a golden opportunity to assert any latent desire to be recognized as “Taiwan” without the political repercussions associated with a formal declaration of independence. The sponsors of the referendum had hoped to tap into the growing sense of national identity among the island’s residents, the majority (56%) of which now identify as exclusively Taiwanese, up from only 17.6% in 1992, according to a 2018 poll conducted by Taiwan’s National Chengchi University (NCCU).     

Perhaps the referendum was doomed to fail, following a ruling in May by the IOC Executive Board, confirming again its position not to allow any changes to the name of the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee (CTOC).  Comments made prior to the referendum by the president of the CTOC, Lin Hong-dow, who conceded to the earlier 1981 Lausanne Agreement over the use of “Chinese Taipei,” were also made public to Taiwanese voters, some of whom knew that the CTOC, a private institution, is not legally obliged to follow government orders.

Voters may have also taken note of the decision in July by the East Asian Olympic Committee (EAOC), believed to be under pressure from Beijing, to revoke the right of the Taiwanese city of Taichung to host the first East Asian Youth Games in 2019. Still others may have feared risking suspension of their athletes’ participation in international events or the Olympics, without knowing athletes can always compete as individuals.  One Taiwanese voter even commented that the IOC letter was “fake news” and that Tokyo has the final say over the use of “Chinese Taipei” or “Taiwan.”

But perhaps the most important factor for Taiwan’s citizens in deciding against the referendum, given the increasing military, diplomatic and economic pressure from Beijing, was a widespread desire to maintain the status quo and not upset the hornets’ nest across the strait.  Similar percentages voted against the referendum (55%) as for maintaining the status quo (57%), either indefinitely (24%) or to decide at a later date (33%).  

And maybe by voting against the referendum to be represented as “Taiwan” in sporting events, coupled with a shift toward the Beijing-leaning KMT, the pragmatic Taiwanese may have calmed the waters and bought themselves more time ahead of the 2020 presidential elections – when they will yet again face these same issues.