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Taiwan's Landmark Election

Walter Russell Mead

Taiwan watchers have been predicting Tsai Ing-wen would win today’s presidential election, but few expected such a landslide. With 99 percent of the polling stations reporting, Taiwan’s first female president-elect had 56 percent of the vote to her opponent’s 31 percent. The New York Times:

Tsai Ing-wen was elected as Taiwan’s president Saturday, becoming the first woman to win the office. Voters gave her Democratic Progressive Party, which is skeptical of closer ties with China, control of Taiwan’s legislature for the first time, giving her broad authority to push her policies in office.

“The results today tell me the people want to see a government that is willing to listen to people, that is more transparent and accountable and a government that is more capable of leading us past our current challenges and taking care of those in need,” she said in a news conference outside her party’s headquarters.

Her main opponent, Eric Chu of the Kuomintang, conceded just after 7 p.m. “I congratulate Chairman Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party on her victory,” he said. “This is the choice of Taiwan’s people.”

The DPP’s victory tells us that Tsai is no lightweight, and it signals real progress for women. Tsai wasn’t a legacy candidate like Indira Gandhi or Benazir Bhutto, but was elected in her own right like Thatcher. Her success says something impressive about her, and about Taiwan.

The campaign focused on economic issues, such as stagnant wages and slowing economic growth. Taiwan is locked into mainland China, and is feeling the pain of the Chinese slowdown. Taiwan’s other giant neighbor, Japan, continues to have problems as well. More than that, Taiwan faces what all of Asia and in fact the whole world does: manufacturing can no longer provide stable middle class incomes for much of the population. The same forces that are polarizing income distribution in the West are at work in Taiwan. There’s a tough road ahead for Tsai and for the DPP party.

The election will strain Taiwan’s relationship with China. During her campaign, Tsai made a high-profile visit to Tokyo. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party favors formal independence from China; many of its members believe that Taiwan has its own distinct national identity. Up until now, both the Chinese and Taiwanese governments have considered Taiwan to be a Chinese province. Yet the Taiwanese do not recognize the communist regime as China’s legitimate rulers, and the Chinese do not recognize the Taiwanese government. Despite the rhetoric of many DPP members, the status quo doesn’t appear likely to change. Drawing on lessons from her loss in 2012 when she ran on a more hawkish platform, Tsai pledged not to change Taiwan’s relationship with China during this campaign.

Still, Beijing clearly isn’t thrilled. Even before the polls opened, Chinese media mocked the elections, reporting that many Taiwanese were suffering from “election syndrome” including such symptoms as “sleeplessness, headaches, faintness, loss of appetite, anger and violent tendencies.” Also in recent days, China caused a stir by forcing a 16-year-old pop star to apologize for waving a Taiwanese flag.

Xi might prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, but as China’s economic situation gets more complicated, domestic pressures will increase, including the pressure to play the nationalist card. And at least for the rest of 2016, the U.S. is led by someone other world leaders, rightly or wrongly, think can be rolled. The temptation to take advantage of perceived U.S. weakness will add to the attraction in the mainland of confronting Taiwan.

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