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Taiwan elections

The fall and rise of Tsai Ing-wen

Taiwan's leader poised for reelection -- thanks in part to Xi Jinping

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks at rally in Taichung on Dec. 15. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TAICHUNG, Taiwan -- Thousands gathered on a sunny November afternoon for what could have been mistaken for a carnival. Children played on inflatable gyms and giggled at clowns. Food stalls served up grilled sausages and scallion cakes. Taiwanese rapper Dwagie performed, with even older audience members participating in his call-and-response choruses.

The event in Taichung was, in fact, a campaign rally for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Few could have predicted such a celebratory mood months earlier, when she had looked unlikely to even survive her party's primary.

Now the Jan. 11 election appears to be hers to lose, with all major polls suggesting she will be reelected.

Tsai Jung, who had traveled from neighboring Changhua county, said she thought Tsai -- no relation -- was the best candidate to defend Taiwan from the threat posed by China. "I support Tsai because she can protect Taiwan," she said. "Take a look at Hong Kong. Their situation is desperate -- we still have hope."

If Tsai does avoid becoming Taiwan's first one-term president, it will cap a roller coaster of a year with a stunning turnaround of her political fortunes. Should her Democratic Progressive Party keep control of the legislature -- an outcome that was once doubtful but now looks more likely -- she will have a mandate to pursue her agenda for four years without needing to worry about reelection. Beijing will likely respond by ramping up its pressure campaign against the island democracy.

But Tsai and her DPP cohort are facing an underestimated opposition in Han Kuo-yu and the China-friendly Kuomintang, who have a highly mobilized base. Before Tsai's political turnaround, they were widely expected to retake the executive and legislative branches, setting Taiwan back onto a course closer to Beijing.

The low point for Tsai came on Nov. 24 of last year, as local election results streamed in. It quickly became obvious that the DPP would lose control of Taiwan's biggest cities, including Kaohsiung, where Han was cruising to a mayoral win. Midway through the night, the impending disaster was so clear that Tsai called a news conference to announce her resignation as party chair.

Tsai supporters cheer at her Dec. 14 rally in Tainan. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Analysts say the DPP's drubbing stemmed from two of Tsai's main initiatives in her first couple of years in office.

"Tsai's major failure was the labor law," said Austin Wang, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, referring to her administration's bungled attempt to add flexibility to the schedules of overworked Taiwanese. "It caused huge chaos for small business and factories, and was one of the reasons the DPP lost a lot of votes in the 2018 local elections in southern Taiwan."

Pension reform went more smoothly for Tsai, but, ironically, that success may have proved even more damaging. Taiwan's system was a remnant of the Kuomintang state that kept civil servants, teachers and soldiers loyal with special pension accounts boasting an 18% annual interest rate -- effectively a socialist oasis within a cutthroat capitalist economy.

"Although revamping Taiwan's pension system was unpopular, it was necessary," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

However necessary pension reform was, it mobilized the Kuomintang base. These voters turned out in droves, seeking -- and securing -- revenge on Tsai and the DPP. To keep them mobilized, Han is vowing to restore the previous pension arrangement. They also voted along Kuomintang lines on a number of referendum questions, dealing a blow to the same-sex marriage movement and a proposal to compete as "Taiwan" in international sporting events rather than as "Chinese Taipei."

This did real damage to Tsai's agenda, undercutting the fairly strong mandate she secured with her landslide win in 2016

Chinese President Xi Jinping makes a speech about Taiwan on Jan. 2 in Beijing. His remarks calling for unification with the mainland -- and Tsai Ing-wen's forceful response -- helped revive support for the Taiwanese leader.   © Reuters

In the election's aftermath, a handful of influential DPP elders openly called for her to give up on reelection.

But then help came from an unexpected source: Chinese President Xi Jinping.

On Jan. 2, Xi declared that Taiwan "must be and will be" unified with China, and made clear that invasion was not out of the question. Xi cited the "1992 Consensus" -- an informal agreement between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party that posits that China and Taiwan are part of the same country -- as the basis for cross-strait relations.

As a model for unification, Xi offered the "one country, two systems" arrangement that Beijing uses to govern Hong Kong.

Hours later, Tsai responded forcefully. She linked the 1992 Consensus, which Han and the rest of the Kuomintang had championed in their campaigns, directly to "one country, two systems." She not only rebuked Xi but also put Han and his party on the defensive.

Thus began Tsai and the DPP's return from the wilderness. Han did himself few favors: After claiming that Kaohsiung would get rich with him at the helm, he has seemed preoccupied with winning the presidency. He is currently on a three-month leave from his position.

"Everything Mayor Han has done has been for his presidential campaign," said Patrice Lin, a 35-year-old Kaohsiung resident. "We don't know where our mayor has gone."

Lin echoed a sentiment heard throughout the city, which had elected Han after 20 years of economic decline under DPP mayors. His pro-Beijing leanings had resonated with voters who thought his vow to increase trade with China would improve the economy. But his endorsement of the 1992 Consensus became a major liability after pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong.

Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu speaks at a rally in Taichung, Taiwan, on Dec. 13. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

It has not been entirely smooth sailing for Tsai this year. Her biggest challenge came in March, when she headed to the South Pacific to shore up relations with three of the last countries that recognize Taiwan's government. Just before she left, her former premier, William Lai, declared he would oppose her in the DPP primary.

Initially caught flat-footed, Tsai maneuvered to postpone the primary, which Lai likely would have won otherwise. This bought her time to assemble a primary campaign and use her visibility as president to amass enough support to survive.

She has been in campaign mode ever since.

While the international media has played up the Hong Kong effect on Tsai's resurgence -- it certainly has not hurt her -- one observer in Taiwan said there are other factors at play as well.

"Articulating Taiwanese sovereignty and rejecting unification are the same talking points the DPP makes every election, regardless of whether there are protests in Hong Kong or not," said Lev Nachman, a visiting Fulbright Scholar in Taipei.

The real game changer, he said, was the announcement of the Kuomintang's party list for the legislature.

Taiwan's legislative election is a mix of directly elected lawmakers for geographic districts, a handful of seats reserved for indigenous Taiwanese, and a small portion of the chamber reserved for proportional representation of party votes. Every Taiwanese voter will cast three ballots in this election: one for president, one for their district's legislator, and one for a party. Each party that wins at least 5% of the party vote is allotted seats from a hierarchical list.

Even after Tsai appeared to have regained enough strength to beat Han, the Kuomintang still seemed likely to retake the legislature. But then, on Nov. 13, Han's party released a party list stacked with pro-unification candidates, Nachman noted.

Among them is Wu Sz-huai, a retired general who attended a speech by Xi in Beijing, where he is said to have sung the Chinese national anthem -- a claim he denies, according to local media interviews. Wu has also commented on Chinese television on how the People's Liberation Army could best defeat the U.S. in a military clash. Wu is No. 4 on the Kuomintang list, virtually guaranteeing him a legislative seat -- and access to classified military intelligence.

Election campaign billboards in Taipei on Dec. 13: With Tsai's reelection looking increasingly certain, the region faces some uncertainty over China's response. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

That will not sit well with many voters, even some who want closer ties with Beijing. Meanwhile, Tsai is getting another assist from the U.S.-China trade war. As a result of the friction, many Taishang, or wealthy Taiwanese businesses owners, are diverting resources from China back to the island, as well as Southeast Asia.

At her rally in Taichung, Tsai boasted of the economic upside of the trade war while also recalling the stinging defeat at the local polls.

"Do you feel like I'm a different Tsai Ing-wen?" she asked, smiling. The crowd, in a city that had voted to switch to a Kuomintang mayor 12 months earlier, responded in the affirmative with loud cheers. "That's because we've heard your voice!"

Heading into the campaign's home stretch, Tsai's reelection is looking increasingly certain. That, however, comes with some regional uncertainty.

"It seems to me that the Chinese expect that Tsai will get reelected," Glaser said. "The more interesting question is what China will do after the election."

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