After a year of extensive and grueling political contention, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has won the presidency for a second term, garnering 57.1 percent of the vote, while her Kuomintang (KMT) rival, Han Kuo-yu, had 38.6 percent. With this victory, President Tsai can continue to implement policies that safeguard Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty.
This election immediately stands out in many ways. For one, it was more focused on policies rather than solely on identity politics, and it saw a wave of fake news on a scale never seen before in the country. Most noticeable was the battle between democracy and populism that became the focal point of the presidential campaign.
Each candidate presented different realities of Taiwan, with Tsai supporting democratic values and Han pursuing a populist approach. This ideological conflict was a major defining feature of this campaign and thus worthy of a closer look at how it led to the election results.
The emergence of populism in Taiwan should not come as a surprise, as it has already affected previous presidential elections around the world in recent years, including in the U.S., Brazil, and the U.K. In these countries populist leaders all ran campaigns of fear-mongering and divisiveness.
In the U.S., Donald Trump ran on the slogan “Make America Great Again,” emphasizing the poor conditions in rural states, criticizing America’s supposed slip in international standing, and promising an end to involvement in foreign conflicts. As president, he promoted the idea of “America First,” which increased racial tensions and severely disrupted national immigration policies.
In Brazil, Jair Bolsanaro presented himself as an alternative candidate to solve the rising crime rate and the political and economic instability that plague the nation. He supported the use of torture and did not hesitate to threaten his political rivals and critics.
Meanwhile in the U.K., Boris Johnson went forward with the Brexit plan, which has been and still is disrupted by opposition politicians, since becoming prime minister. His promotion of Brexit, unfortunately, increased racial tensions and highlighted controversial racial and social issues, similar to those in America.
Han Kuo-yu’s tumultuous campaign continued this international trend. He purposefully painted a dark picture of Taiwan’s current situation: lost diplomatic allies, a weak economy, a declining tourism industry, and poor cross-strait relations. He presented himself as the only candidate that could solve these problems, running on a platform of political stability and economic prosperity.
Han was extremely skilled at invigorating his fans and knowing exactly what to say to garnish their support. He successfully portrayed himself as a down-to-earth, blue-collar, confident man who appealed to many.
Being the KMT candidate, he was also aided by the dissemination of fake news from multiple sources. These news stories often criticized the Tsai administration and spread false rumors and narratives that painted the DPP in a negative light.
Han often added fuel to the fire by further antagonizing the DPP, accusing the party of being full of corrupt criminals and incapable of efficiently governing the nation.
As opposed to Tsai Ing-wen, Han Kuo-yu was more pro-China and advocated closer ties with Beijing. Naturally, this attracted many Taiwanese businessmen based in China along with some in the Taiwanese tourist industry and those who still identify as "Chinese."
The older generations who have remained loyal to the KMT out of habit and former government employees who felt wronged after President Tsai’s reforms also stood behind this idiosyncratic candidate. Pan-green voters often criticized these KMT constituents as “idiotic” or “crazy,” which has only added to the growing political divisiveness in Taiwanese society.
Nevertheless, to many Han supporters, friendlier relations with China would bring political stability, and consequently, a multitude of economic benefits. Generally speaking, they view China as the only answer for a brighter future in Taiwan.
Contrary to Han’s outrageous accusations, Taiwan has thrived under the Tsai administration. President Tsai has remained steadfast under the duress of facing Chinese military and political threats.
Furthermore, she has safeguarded Taiwan’s sovereignty by strengthening the military through significant arms purchases and the expansion of domestic weapons manufacturing, meaningful participation in international organizations, and by solidifying relations with like-minded nations.
Additionally, the Tsai administration has protected Taiwan’s democratic way of life with such initiatives as the legalization of gay marriage, the anti-infiltration law, and the deportations of Chinese nationals who damaged local Lennon walls in support of the protests in Hong Kong. Through her inclination for progressivism and transitional justice, Tsai has strived to elevate Taiwan as a beacon of democracy in East Asia.
Though Han’s harsh criticisms of the DPP seemed to have hit deep, and his pessimistic description of Taiwan’s current situation has frightened many people, voters were able to see through his populist rhetoric. Behind his attractive promises, he was a figure with no major political experience and no tangible achievements to back his promises up.
Not long after winning the mayoral election in Kaohsiung, Han took a long leave of absence to focus on his presidential campaign, leaving his subordinates to run the city. Many local residents undoubtedly felt abandoned by the man who had promised a wave of change for the southern city.
Furthermore, his pro-China tendencies scared off many people, just as the last presidential election had. Though Han has rejected China's "one country, two systems" framework, he still adamantly supports the so-called "1992 Consensus" even after Xi Jinping made it clear that the two stipulations were components of Beijing’s "one-China principle."
It was easy for Taiwanese to recognize the mounting danger of what unification would be like under the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The widely publicized anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong and the local government’s response along with the reports of concentration camps in Xinjiang were clear warnings that Taiwan would be next if it became complacent to China’s unification efforts.
The last straw was the revelation of Chinese espionage and interference in Taiwan’s elections by a supposed Chinese defector taking refuge in Australia. Whether his personal story is true or not, it confirmed what many Taiwanese had feared was already taking place. These factors only cost Han more supporters.
Ultimately, it was largely the fear of Chinese encroachment and Tsai’s preservation of Taiwanese sovereignty that led to her second term. For the time being, Taiwanese can be proud that through the democratic process, they staved off populism and demonstrated to China that its aggressive tactics have not worked.
Though this victory gives Tsai and the DPP a chance to breathe a sigh of relief, Tsai Ing-wen cannot sit idly by for the next four years. She must work hard to continue to protect and promote Taiwan’s democratic values, as the steady stream of fake news and future populist movements will not stop.
Tsai’s next term will undoubtedly bring many challenges, including reigniting cross-strait dialogue, preventing diplomatic isolation, reversing the brain drain, and implementing preventative measures against Chinese intimidation. No matter what comes her way, President Tsai must lead Taiwan with courage and confidence.
Kelvin Chen is a graduate of the International Masters program in Asia Pacific Studies (IMAS) at National Chengchi University. His primary research interests are Taiwan's strategic security and foreign policy.