Following a bitter campaign dominated by “fake news” generated from China and punctuated by sexist personal attacks on President Tsai Ing-wen, the incumbent was re-elected in the Jan. 11 race, overwhelmingly defeating her main challenger, Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT). Tsai, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), received 8.17 million votes, or some 57% of the total, to Han’s 5.52 million votes, or 39%. A third candidate, James Soong of the People First Party (PFP), garnered 608,590 votes, or 4.26%. Tsai’s total was the highest ever recorded for any candidate in a presidential election in Taiwan.
With Han and the KMT calling for closer integration with China, the repression in Hong Kong was an inevitable and pressing context in the vote. “The results of this election carry an added significance because they have shown that when our sovereignty and democracy are threatened, the Taiwanese people will shout our determination even more loudly back,” Tsai said after her victory. “Today, I want to once again call upon the Beijing authorities to remind them that peace, parity, democracy and dialogue are the key to positive cross-strait interactions and long-term stable development. I also hope that the Beijing authorities understand that democratic Taiwan and our democratically-elected government will not concede to threats and intimidation.”
The populist Han, described as Taiwan’s Donald Trump, revived Republic of China patriotic songs on the campaign trail, openly playing to nostalgia for the Chiang Kai-shek dictatorship among a certain conservative and aging segment of the electorate. In addition to such controversial stances as his pledge to drill for oil in the contested South China Sea and bring casinos and Formula One motor races to Taiwan, he cultivated an “everyman” image despite his own lavish lifestyle. (Does this sound familiar?)
His bogus populism seemed to be working. In November 2018, the so-called “9-in-1” regional elections saw the KMT sweep nine districts—including Kaohsiung, the DPP’s traditional home turf, where Han was elected mayor. But as protests mounted in Hong Kong over the course of the presidential campaign, voters apparently became increasingly wary of the KMT’s embrace of the “1992 Consensus,” under which Beijing and Taipei both acknowledged there is only “One China,” and they are both part of it. The DPP, in turn, officially supports the island’s de jure independence—even if in practice that really means accepting the status quo of de facto independence, in which Taiwan is what some have called a “phantom republic.”
Han’s March visit to Hong Kong, where he met with officials from Beijing’s Liaison Office, proved to be extremely ill-timed. Tsai used the visit to speculate that the KMT was willing to accept a “one country, two systems” solution for Taiwan—just as this model was to be delegitimized in the protest wave that began in Hong Kong in June. (CNA, Time, Ketagalan Media, Taipei Times, Taiwan News, New Bloom, Lao Ren Cha)
The lead-up to the election also saw two big protest mobilizations in Taipei—with a refreshing lack of police repression. On Dec. 29, the annual environmental demonstration led by the Air Clean Taiwan (ACT) coalition demanded action on air pollution in the capital metro area, and Taiwan’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.
Then, Jan. 4 saw the annual Workers’ Struggle demonstration in support of labor rights. The Worker’s Struggle movement held a weeks-long protest encampment in Taipei in late 2017 against the Tsai administration’s changes to the Labor Standards Act, which weakened worker protections. This year, the January demonstration culminated in a march on the Legislative Yuan, signaling that protest will continue against all three major parties, and regardless of the electoral outcome. (New Bloom)
This also is refreshing. If Tsai attempts further such neoliberal “reform,” she can expect more such militant civl opposition. But meanwhile, Han’s defeat was also a defeat for empty populism that derails independent people’s struggle, a defeat for China’s revanchist Great Power ambitions—and for the fast-consolidating Fascist World Order.
Photo of Workers’ Struggle demonstration in Taipei via New Bloom