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5 things you should know about Taiwan’s upcoming election

Taiwan’s main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, front row, fifth from left, chants slogans with party officials after giving a speech at a party congress in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, on Sept. 19. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters)
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Taiwan’s national elections in January are slated to be the most important in the democracy in nearly 20 years. What makes this election different?

1. Taiwan is poised to elect its first female president.

Both of Taiwan’s major parties have nominated female presidential candidates, Tsai Ing-Wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Hung Hsiu-Chu of the Kuomintang (KMT). Neither is related to a former leader in Taiwan. This is important: While Asian democracies have elected 11 female presidents or prime ministers from 1945-2014, all were in some way connected to a male former politician or leader of the democracy movement. Taiwan is an outlier in Asia when it comes to the percentage of women in the legislature  – 33.6 percent of seats in the 2012 election. Only East Timor surpassed Taiwan (38.5 percent) in the region.

2. Taiwan’s longtime ruling party – the KMT – is expected to lose the presidency and possibly the legislature.

Taiwan democratized in the 1990s and is a semi-presidential system, with a directly elected president but also a premier similar to parliamentary systems. The KMT transformed from an authoritarian power to a competitive party, only losing the presidency twice (2000, 2004). With its coalitional partners, collectively known as the pan-blues, the KMT has never lost control of the legislature, and had supermajorities in 2008 and 2012 (75 percent and 69 percent of seats respectively).

Following the DPP’s success in the 2014 local elections, analysts expect the KMT to struggle to hold onto the legislature. While it is unclear whether the DPP can win a majority in the legislature — in part due to malapportionment and safe KMT seats — this will be the first election where a DPP majority is even a possibility.

Meanwhile, the KMT’s presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-Chu is currently struggling to break twenty percent in the pre-election polls, with the DPP’s Tsai Ing-Wen consistently polling at least 40 percent. The only time the KMT candidate finished third in a presidential election, in 2000, this led to a DPP victory. Ironically, the same candidate who split the KMT vote in 2000, James Soong, is also splitting the KMT vote in 2016.

3. Taiwanese identity is growing despite (or because of) increased ties with China.

Since democratization in the 1990s, Taiwan’s polls have frequently asked whether people identify as Chinese, Taiwanese or both. Since 1992, Taiwanese identification has increased from 17.6 percent to 59 percent, while Chinese identification has fallen from 25.5 percent to 3.3 percent. This shift benefits the opposition party, the DPP, who have traditionally promoted a distinct Taiwanese identity.

This shift can be attributed in part to a backlash to the economic dependence on China, a country whose leaders view Taiwan as a renegade province and who insist that the island must unify with China eventually.

4. This doesn’t necessarily mean conflict with China.

Despite the DPP’s history of promoting formal independence from China, it is highly unlikely that the party will push the issue if elected. Tsai herself pledged to maintain the status quo. While Taiwanese identity is increasing, support for Taiwan’s ill-defined status quo — not formal independence but not moving towards unification — is consistently supported by a majority of the population across party lines. Nor are China’s leaders anxious to change the status quo, especially after previous attempts to influence Taiwanese elections largely backfired.

5. The election may change domestic politics, including LGBT rights

This is the first national election where relations with China largely have been secondary to broader issues of economic growth and social policy. Assuming a DPP victory, Tsai has already proposed a series of government and electoral reforms. Should the DPP win, Taiwan may also become the first country in the region to legalize same-sex marriage.

Timothy Rich is an assistant professor of political science at Western Kentucky University.