Challenges Ahead for the DPP in Taiwan

Ya-Wen Lei, Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and Assistant Professor at Harvard’s Department of Sociology (effective July 2016), examines the political environment inherited by Taiwan’s opposition DPP.

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The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has won a historic landslide victory in both the Taiwanese presidential and congressional elections. As expected, Tsai Ing-Wen, the chairwoman of the DPP, was elected as Taiwan’s first female president. Furthermore, the DPP has gained an absolute majority in the Congress for the very first time. Although the DPP’s victory is unprecedented, it still faces many challenges.

Taiwan’s faltering economy contributed to the failure of the Kuomintang (KMT), whose efforts to reboot the economy by promoting integration with China failed. There are many concerns about Taiwan’s current economic developmental model. The model has not only failed to produce economic growth and encourage innovation, but has also led to stagnant wages, increasing income and wealth inequality, and perceived social injustice. A younger generation of Taiwanese feel increasingly pessimistic about life in Taiwan. Whether Tsai and the DPP can find a satisfying alternative social-economic developmental model remains to be seen.

Tsai and the DPP will also face questions from various civil groups regarding the new government’s willingness to strengthen democracy. Taiwan, a young democracy, has previously focused more on electoral mobilization, but civil actors in Taiwan now seek greater participation in policy and law making. The Sunflower Movement in 2014 gave rise to a coalition of students and civic groups. As some civic groups have become disenchanted with the DPP, they have questioned the difference between the DDP and KMT in terms of the two parties’ close ties with powerful business actors. How the DDP interacts with civil forces in Taiwan will influence the extent to which Tsai can achieve her goals to strengthen solidarity and build consensus.

Cross-strait relations will be a challenge for Tsai and the DPP, but the status quo is unlikely to change unless China adopts more aggressive policies. Tsai is pragmatic and unlikely to provoke China, although the DPP has many hardline pro-independence supporters. If China takes a more aggressive stance, however, Tsai and the DPP will be forced to respond to public opinion. Research conducted by the National Chengchi University shows that the percentage of respondents who identify themselves as Taiwanese has increased over time; in contrast, the percentages of respondents who identify themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese, and as purely Chinese, has declined. Such identity shifts suggest any increase in Chinese aggression will likely prompt serious backlash in Taiwan and put pressure on Tsai. Tsai therefore needs to consider how to legitimize cross-strait policies and avoid repeating President Ma’s mistakes. This may require the new government to respond to requests from some civil groups regarding whether and how to amend the Constitution.