Taiwan elected its first female president over the weekend, ushering in a new time of uncertainty for the island nation, which China considers a runaway province, after the pro-Beijing ruling party lost both the presidency and legislature in a landslide.
Taiwan is a relatively new democracy—the first opposition party didn’t appear on the island until 1986—but that opposition party is important. The election’s winner was Tsai Ing-Wen of the Democratic Progressive Party , which is pro-independence, non-reunification with China.
Five takeways from the election:
- Don’t expect much antagonism from new President Tsai Ing-wen to start. Taiwan’s economy has been growing at an anemic 1% for the past two years, the birth rate is among the lowest in the world, and Tsai was elected in part on dissatisfaction about that. Forty percent of the island's exports head to China and Hong Kong. Tsai doesn’t want to imperil that relationship now.
- Growing inequality is a focus. During the election, the incumbent Kuomintang party was cast as the side enriching Taiwanese elites who were moving factories and jobs over to mainland China. Political commentators have speculated that Tsai will try to bring jobs back to Taiwan, though that seems like a difficult task.
- Tsai is not a popular choice in Beijing. She supported the Sunflower Movement in 2014, when student protesters occupied parliament to air complaints about Beijing’s influence on the island. She also worked for a DPP head who didn’t accept a supposed 1992 consensus between Taiwan and China that considered the sides one China. She still doesn’t, but her “status quo” rhetoric isn’t yet threatening, nor is her bookish demeanor.
- Former president Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang party was a disappointment. His approval ratings a couple of years ago were lower than the U.S. Congress’s. Zhu Songling, director of the Institute of Cross-Straits Relations at Beijing’s Union University, said the KMT party’s loss was fueled by “internal contradiction and a failure to keep up with the times.” It wasn’t just Tsai’s message that resonated with the electorate; it was the incumbent’s lack of one, too.
- Taiwan is still vulnerable. Ma drew Taiwan and China closer with trade agreements—only in 2008, nearly 60 years after the end of China's civil war, could you finally fly directly from Taiwan to China. Now China can use some of those agreements as negotiating tools instead of reverting to military threats. China wants to make Taiwan more vulnerable and weak, but not act so aggressively that the world and Taiwan’s youth revolt.