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Independence-leaning DPP heading for landslide victory

Taiwan’s president and parliament are going to be newly elected this Saturday. Tsai Ing-wen, the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is leading in all of the opinion polls and could become the first female president of Taiwan. In Beijing the election is being regarded with scepticism as it is unlikely a DPP-led government would continue the mainland-friendly course followed by the conservative Kuomintang (KMT).

We spoke to Johannes Buckow, research assistant at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin, about the matter.

In the Taiwanese opinion polls, the DPP has been well ahead of the incumbent KMT for months now. Is a shift of power likely soon, do you think?

Well, the opportunity for the DPP to get an absolute majority in parliament has certainly never been better. Many Taiwanese citizens are unhappy about the country’s economic situation: growth has been dropping and real earnings have been falling, too. A large number of young voters, in particular, feel they have been losing out as a result of the KMT’s mainland-friendly politics. This frustration with the situation has been voiced quite loudly at various protests over the last few months. Many companies have moved their business activities to the mainland in recent years – in other words, Taiwanese jobs have been lost to China.The DPP wants to reduce Taiwan’s dependence on the mainland: Tsai would like to make Taiwan’s economy more innovative and develop the island’s relations to Japan and the United States even further. Whether or not this can be done will also depend on whether she can convince local businesses of her plans.

Taiwan refers to itself formally as the ‘Republic of China’, but in Beijing’s view, it is nothing more than a rogue province. Just how ‘Chinese’ is Taiwan nowadays?

The Taiwanese even disagree on this question themselves. Many people say they can’t identify with the mainland any more – young people, in particular. Rather than seeing links with China, they often refer to the great mixture of cultural influences that have shaped Taiwan – influences from Japan, from Taiwan’s own aboriginal inhabitants and from the West. Many people are also afraid Taiwan will lose its freedom and independence if it gets too pally with the People’s Republic.The two biggest parties reflect this ambivalent attitude to the Chinese mainland: the once authoritarian governing party of the Republic of China, the KMT, traditionally stands for Taiwan’s Chinese identity and intensive co-operation with the Chinese mainland. It maintainsclose contact with the large companies that produce goods on the mainland and also sell them there. The opposition party, the DPP, grew out of the democracy movement that developed in the 1980s. The members of this party emphasise Taiwan’s cultural diversity and call for more independence for the island.

How would you describe Tsai as a politician? What makes her own politics different to that of her predecessor from the KMT, Ma Ying-jeou, who is not allowed to stand for election again?

Unlike Ma and her rival from the KMT, Eric Chu, Tsai only became actively involved in politics at a relatively late point in time and doesn’t have such a broad network of contacts in the business world yet. Nonetheless, she has still managed to get the DPP to be a party representing a wider range of matters than in the past. At times, the party became very confrontational in its call for greater independence for Taiwan while it was under the leadership of former president Chen Shui-bian. Nowadays, it also wants to see more affordable accommodation built and promotes innovation, clean energy and the right for same-sex couples to marry. The DPP has been reaching out to new groups of the population as a result.Unlike the DPP, the KMT has experienced a shift to the right under Ma’s leadership: he had history textbooks changed to emphasise Taiwan’s Chinese identity more strongly and pushed controversial new trade agreements with the People’s Republic of China despite resistance from citizens.

To what extent has the PRC been involved in this election campaign?

One reason for Beijing allowing the historic meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou to take place in November 2015 will certainly have been to help the KMT score some points during the hottest phase of the election campaign. That didn’t actually help the KMT, though. Most Taiwanese – including those who regard themselves as Chinese – want to maintain the status quo as it is. Apart from that, Beijing has kept a very low profile, as far as we are aware. Contrary to past elections, no military manoeuvres have been staged to intimidate the Taiwanese this time.

What effect would there be on relations to the People’s Republic of China if Tsai and the DPP won the election?

Beijing would clearly prefer to have a KMT government as its negotiating partner rather than a government led by the DPP. Over the last few years, Taipei and Beijing have been able to use the party relations between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party to make progress in terms of dialogue. This mechanism won’t be available any more if the DPP wins on Saturday. If that happens, new trade agreements probably won’t be negotiated as quickly as they were in the past. On the other hand, both parties will want to steer clear of any escalation in future, as Taiwan and mainland China have a host of strong economic ties. If Tsai sends some conciliatory signals in China’s direction soon after being elected President, I expect Beijing will also make an effort to treat their relations pragmatically.

What effect would an election win by the DPP have on the region as far as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are concerned, for example?

In terms of foreign policy, the DPP wants to pursue a different course to the KMT. Plans to increase the military budget considerably could create some tension with the People’s Republic of China. Beijing would be likely to stock up its military forces in Fujian, the closest province to Taiwan. In contrast, Tsai would seek to ease the tension regarding the territorial disputes in the South China Sea: she would like to see closer diplomatic links with Taiwan’s neighbours and would support a solution that is in harmony with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The KMT government took a more confrontational approachhere by repeatedly sending ships into disputed waters, thereby straining relations to neighbouring nations like Japan and the Philippines.

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