A new Taiwan - and a new relationship with China?
April-July 2016
By: Jessica Drun

On Jan. 16, more than 12 million Taiwanese went to the polls and elected Tsai Ing-wen and her opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to the presidency and a full majority in Taiwan’s legislature, the Legislative Yuan. The DPP’s resounding victory marked numerous historical firsts – the first time Taiwan has selected a female president, the first time the DPP has secured the legislature and the first time the DPP has controlled both the executive and legislative branches of Taiwan’s government.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) – which has governed the island for all but eight years of Taiwan’s history – suffered a major defeat, viewed by observers as a staunch repudiation by Taiwan’s electorate of President Ma Ying-jeou’s policies. Immediately afterward, the party’s losing presidential candidate, Eric Chu, major of New Taipei City, stepped down as the KMT’s chairman. As of press time, the party was vetting candidates to be the new chairperson, who will have to address the reasons for the party’s defeat and guide it toward reform.

These developments – a DPP more or less unhindered by partisan counterbalances in policy making and a KMT that is reassessing its approach to politics – point to numerous unknowns in the future, of most importance is the future of cross-strait relations and how China is likely to react once Tsai is inaugurated in May. An exploration of the background to these elections, specifically the numerous factors at play that ultimately led to the DPP’s sweeping victory, highlights the priorities of Taiwan’s electorate and can serve as an indicator of the policy debate to come, be it on domestic concerns regarding the economy or social welfare or in what form Taipei continues its engagement with Beijing. Against this backdrop, however, lays the other critical component: the Chinese leadership’s perception of the new DPP government and how it will contend with a less accommodating administration. 

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