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Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen won a resounding victory in Saturday’s election, giving her four more years in office and delivering her party, the Democratic Progressive People (DPP) a strong, albeit slimmed down parliamentary majority. After the vote, Tsai stood in front of supporters in the capital Taipei and declared that “Taiwan is showing the world how much we cherish our free, democratic way of life, and how much we cherish our nation: the Republic of China”. She then paused before adding, “Taiwan”.
The newly re-elected president was reflecting on her victory against the Kuomintang (KMT) opponent Han Guo-yu, but Tsai Ing-wen’s careful wording foreshadows a challenge that she will soon face, this time from within her own party.
The ideological spectrum of political parties in most democracies spans from left-wing interventionist to right-wing laissez-faire economics. Ideological variations essentially comes down to what role one perceives for the government in citizens’ daily lives. In Taiwan, the ideological split is premised on the self-governing island’s relationship with China, rather than on the government’s relationship with its own people.
This ideological split stretches from the deep-greens, who seek to drop the island’s official title as “Republic of China” and instead declare itself as the independent state of “Taiwan”, to the deep-blues, who support unification with mainland China. Tsai is light-green, supportive of the notion of Taiwanese independence but opting for the sake of political expediency to retain the island’s official title as the “Republic of China”.
The deep-green coalition will now exert immense pressure on Tsai’s government to push for independence, invoking a promise that she made during the 2015 DPP presidential primary. Just as David Cameron placated the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party, by promising to address the UK’s membership of the European Union if he won a majority in the next election, so Tsai made a promise to the deep greens that in exchange for their support, she would address the independence issue if she won a second term.
Tsai’s pact was made at a high point for the deep-green movement. The 2014 Sunflower Movement, a series of wide scale student protests, successfully halted ratification of a Cross-Strait trade agreement that would intertwined Taiwan’s economy closer to China’s and made the island more vulnerable to political pressure from Beijing. Out of this emerged a young generation of independence activists that have coalesced with the older deep-greens, who in turn first formed as an underground movement in opposition to Chiang Kai-shek’s military dictatorship.
Deep greens bristle at Tsai’s talk of the “Republic of China”, seeing it as a sign that she is a “closet KMT politician”. Yet, Tsai’s language is reflective of the majority of Taiwan’s population. Recent polling survey shows that only 6% of the electorate think Taiwan should imminently declare independence, while only 1.4% favour immediate unification with China (see Chart). The overwhelming majority, 87% prefer maintenance of the status quo in the short-term, although large divides exist on what the longer-term trajectory should be.
If Taiwan were to declare formal independence, it risks provoking Beijing to invade the island. China intermittently reminds Taiwan of their intent to do so, both in Xi Jinping’s New Year speeches, in which every year he makes threats about unification or through the passage of the Chinese navy through the Taiwan Strait.
Tsai faces the choice of fulfilling her earlier pledge to the deep-greens and pushing for Taiwanese independence, or interminably delaying delivering the party’s core vision. It is in her Election Day reference to both the “Republic of China” and “Taiwan” that she signals her intent for to do nothing. Yet on this island of divided identity, where many variations of blue and green thinking exist, the only consensus that exists is that nothing should be done. For Tsai, kicking the can down the road is not only her only option, but her greatest political strength.