Asia Program

Taiwan to Hold Pivotal Elections on January 14

Jan 17, 2012

Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party (KMT) looks set to retain office in what has at times has been a close contest for the island’s January 14 elections.

Challenger Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has at times led Ma in opinion polls. However, Tsai trailed the incumbent in final polls, held in early January. The liberal Tsai’s chances may now rest on whether a third candidate, the People First Party’s James Soong Chu-yu, will siphon conservative votes from Ma.

The DPP also seeks to overturn a KMT majority in a vote for the legislature, held concurrently with the presidential election for the first time. Some analysts say Tsai is using her heightened profile during the presidential election in order to increase the DPP’s parliamentary vote. Ma, on the other hand, is attempting to use local contests to bolster his presidential showing.

During the 2008 campaign that brought him to office Ma relied on a negative message against then-President and DPP Leader Chen Shui-bian’s perceived recklessness and corruption. Such methods are unlikely to succeed against Tsai, who has adopted a measured approach to politics and avoided scandal. Instead, the DPP has recently accused Ma of corruption, claiming that his administration used intelligence services to illegally gather information about the opposition’s campaign strategies.

Ma adheres to a “1992 consensus” under which both Beijing and Taipei claim there is only one China but agree to formulate their own conceptions of China’s identity. In contrast, Tsai has called for a new “Taiwan consensus,” a vague term that some have seen as synonymous with an independent stance for Taiwan that could scuttle improved economic ties with the mainland.

Analysts in the United States are cautious about predicting the outcome of the election, but also on balance see a renewed Ma administration as positive for U.S. interests. China sees Taiwan as a renegade, but inseparable, province of its own. The United States, keen to see stability in the world’s fastest-growing region, does not want a Taiwan that threatens to antagonize Beijing.

A significant minority of American analysts, however, believe that Taiwan is either a strategic impediment to good relations with the more important mainland China, or that Taiwan is a benighted democracy that deserves formal recognition from the international community. From these two differing perspectives, a Tsai victory might be a positive development, either sidelining Taiwan as Beijing and Washington engage in future cooperation, or inching Taiwan closer to independence.

For more information on the Taiwan election contact Wilson Center East Asia Program Associate Bryce Wakefield (Bryce.Wakefield@wilsoncenter.org; 202-691-4011), Kissinger Institute on China and the US Deputy Director Douglas Spelman, or Asia Program Director Robert Hathaway (Robert.Hathaway@wilsoncenter.org; 202-691-4012), or click here to view a recent Wilson Center event on the election.

Experts & Staff