Taiwan elections: Presidential candidates take center stage, but don’t overlook the parliament races

Foreign Affairs

Illustration by Anna Vignet

Freddy Lim (林昶佐 Lín Chǎngzuǒ) sits on a foreign relations committee in Taiwan’s parliament and hopes he can use the position to put money behind his government’s improving but still informal ties with Europe and the United States. This month, however, Lim is walking the streets of Taipei every day to campaign for reelection against Lin Yu-fang (林郁方 Lín Yùfāng), the veteran Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) politician who used to hold his seat.

While much of the international press covering the January 11 Taiwan elections has focused on the presidential race between incumbent Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) and primary challenger Han Kuo-yu (韓国瑜 Hán Guóyú), the outcome of the legislative elections — to be held on the same day — could impact foreign relations, ties with mainland China, and social issues including the rights of same-sex married couples. Every seat in the unicameral Legislative Yuan, 113 total, is up for grabs.

In 2016, the liberal Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a majority for the first time ever, capturing 68 seats against the KMT’s 35. The New Power Party — founded by young activists such as Lim, who beat Lin by four percentage points — won five seats.

Pollsters and political analysts believe the DPP will win enough seats in the January 11 vote to keep its majority. President Tsai remains comfortably favored in her race against Han.

If predictions hold, the outcome would let Lim’s camp join Tsai in sidelining the ever-sticky issue of relations with mainland China, and build ties with other powerful countries such as Japan, the U.S., and governments in Western Europe. Stronger relations could inspire those countries to pass ships through the Taiwan Strait, in support of Taipei, as Canada and the U.S. have done over the past two years.

As recently as a year ago, Beijing fully expected the pro-Beijing KMT to retake both the presidency and the parliament, this on the heels of the 2018 midterm election results. But much has changed in the time since to swing the advantage back to the DPP, including protests in Hong Kong, a Taiwan economy that has proven uncannily resilient, and aggressive posturing from Chinese president Xí Jìnpíng 习近平. Depending on how the January 11 elections shake out, Beijing may have to rethink its entire Taiwan policy.

The ruling party’s legislative camp wants stronger relations with foreign powers as a buffer against China. Officials in Beijing, led by Xi, are growing impatient with Taiwan’s independence movement. In a January 2 speech last year, Xi said, “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means” (a 2005 National People’s Congress anti-secession law officially authorizes the use of force). Under Tsai’s term since 2016, China has persuaded seven countries to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, leaving Taiwan with formal diplomatic ties with only 15 nations.

“When China is trying to suppress Taiwan, we need to have a clear response,” Lim, an erstwhile heavy metal star, said in December. “If China wants to keep up relations, that’s OK, but our focus is to spend more time to make more friends, whether that’s Canada, the United States or Australia, the countries in Europe or Japan as a closer neighbor.”

On the domestic side, the new parliament could pass bills that legalize child adoption for same-sex couples, deepen pension reforms, and correct what they see as problems left over from KMT rule before Taiwan’s democratization in the 1980s.

The Democratic Progressive Party camp could gain or lose as many as 10 seats this month, said You Ying-lung, chairman of the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation. A loss of 10 would still leave the DDP-led majority with 58 of the legislature’s 113 seats.

According to prediction last month by the Taiwan New Constitution Foundation advocacy group (台湾制宪基金会 Táiwān zhì xiàn jījīn huì), the DPP will grab about 37 percent of the legislative vote in this month’s elections, the KMT will get 20 percent, and a lot of the rest will go to minor parties. Two of the bigger minor parties are expected to vote with the DPP.

In Taiwan, it takes only a simple majority to pass bills, though influential minority lawmakers have a history of stalling bills through protests, competing proposals, and occasional brawls on the parliament floor, such as one that erupted in 2017 over perceptions that infrastructure construction money was being allocated unfairly.

A new parliament under the same majority would probably extend the May 2019 law allowing same-sex marriages — a first for Asia — to let couples adopt children, party Deputy Secretary General Lin Fei-fan (林飞帆 Lín Fēifān) said.

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Lin also said it may try to take back assets it believes a pre-democracy-era Nationalist government illegally seized. In 2016, a DPP-majority parliament passed the Act Governing the Handling of Ill-gotten Properties by Political Parties and Their Affiliate Organizations, which has frozen Nationalist assets.

Other upcoming legislation should favor the rights of indigenous Taiwanese, Lin said, though nothing is currently on the table. Indigenous people make up about 2 percent of the population and form an economic underclass on parts of the island.

The legislature might also look again at government pension reforms in the next session, he added. In 2018, it passed a law that cut military veteran stipends by 20 percent.

A “fragile majority” would compel the DPP to work more with sympathetic smaller parties, meaning some resulting bills could be “radical,” said Huang Kwei-bo (黄奎博 Huáng Kuíbó), vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

Parliament’s heaviest-hitting laws already passed between 2016 and now, Huang added, so any new action on China or the Nationalist Party assets are more likely to start with government departments.

“I think our policy direction overall, if you make a comparison to the United States, is actually relatively liberal,” Lin Fei-fan said. A larger majority would mean “more policies that we’d have more ability to pass.”

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