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Transcending Gender: the Importance of Candidates’ China Policy in Taiwan’s Presidential Election

With Hung Hsiu-chu almost all but confirmed as the Kuomintang’s (KMT) candidate for Taiwan’s upcoming presidential elections [1], an all-female presidential contest is now underway to be concluded in the elections early next year. Her opponent is Tsai Ing-wen, Chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and confirmed candidate for the election.

Many Taiwanese are rightly proud of the fact that both presidential candidates are women. Taiwan could be seen as a leader in the region in this respect, especially compared to Australia’s current representation of women in parliament where women comprise only 26% of the House of Representatives.

However, while gender will probably be the most reported characteristic in the upcoming election, it is far from the most important issue dominating debates in Taiwan.

For Taiwanese voters and Taiwan watchers, the defining element of this presidential contest is the candidates’ policy and their stance vis-à-vis Taiwan’s relations with China. On this issue, their positions could not be more different, irrespective of their gender.

Tsai Ing-wen was also the DPP’s presidential candidate in the 2012 elections, losing to the current President Ma Ying-jiu (Tsai obtained 45.6% of the vote, compared to Ma’s 51.6%). One of the key reasons for her losing the election was her inability to define clearly her China policy and her view on the 1992 consensus – an agreement reached between China and Taiwan in 1992 in which both sides agreed there was ‘one China’ but maintained different interpretations about what this ‘one China’ meant.

Since Ma’s election in 2012, he has followed an agenda of promoting closer ties with the mainland, signing 21 agreements. The public initially welcomed this stance because it normalised relations with China after the tumultuous years of the Chen Shui-bian era. However, in Ma’s second term, as more encompassing agreements were signed, the public started to worry about just how close relations were becoming with China. This culminated in large-scale protests (called the Sunflower Movement) in 2014, responding to the Cross Strait Services and Trade Agreement which would have opened 64 services industries in Taiwan to Chinese operators as well as 80 industries in China to Taiwanese operators.

These protests, along with recent polls showing a rising sense of Taiwanese identity, reflect a wider mood within Taiwanese society where public opinion is seeking a more moderate approach towards Taiwan’s relations with China.

Once again the ‘China’ factor is shaping up to be the defining issue in this election.

Tsai Ing-wen has learnt from her mistakes of 2012 and has proposed a carefully considered China policy. Hung on the other hand is an ideologue who promotes greater integration with China, her policy objective being one of ultimate unification. While her views may resonate with a small part of the population, they are out of step with the vast majority of Taiwanese society. The most recent polling from the Election Study Center at the Chengchi University “Trends in Core Political Attitude of Taiwanese” (measuring attitudes towards unification compared to independence in Taiwan) shows that the vast majority of Taiwanese voters support the status quo. 34.4% of respondents say they support the “status quo decid[ing] at a later date”, 25.2% said they support “maintaining status quo indefinitely”. On the other hand only 7.9% support “maintain[ing the] status quo move towards unification” and only 1.3% support “unification as soon as possible”. These responses show that the vast majority of the population do not want any drastic changes to Taiwan’s policy towards China.

In addition to her polarising views on China, Hung’s stubborn personal style has not won her any new votes. She is often compared unfavourably to rogue presidential candidates in the US like Sarah Palin. Despite a recent TVBS poll suggesting Hung would likely win an election it is nevertheless more than likely that the KMT will receive an electoral drubbing in 2016. This has become more likely as a number of legislators have left the KMT due to Hung’s pro-independence rhetoric.

Although the ‘gender’ component is likely to be covered extensively in the lead-up to Taiwan’s presidential elections, more important is both candidates’ China policy and its impact on the domestic political landscape. This election is shaping up to be one of critical importance for Taiwan’s future and cross-strait relations.

[1] This will be confirmed at the KMT Party Congress on 19 July.

Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

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