Elections in Taiwan and singer Chou Tzu-yu as a symbol of relations with China

Tsai Ing-wen (left) and Chou Tzu-yu (right).
Tsai Ing-wen (left) and Chou Tzu-yu (right). Author: David Reid (esquerra/left), Den Oppa (dreta/right)
"Our democratic system, national identity and international space must be respected. Any forms of suppression will harm the stability of cross-strait relations." These are Tsai Ing-wen's words after she was elected on Saturday the first woman president in the history of Taiwan. Tsai is the chairman of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which for the first time ever will have an absolute majority in Taiwan's legislature, the Yuan.

Tsai received 56% of the votes in the presidential election, well above her main rival, Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Eric Chu Li-luan, with 31% of the ballots. Regarding the 113-member Yuan, the PDP secured 68 seats. Pro-Chinese unification Kuomintang saw their number of seats almost halved to just 35. Another minor pro-independence party, the New Power Party, secured 5 seats.

During the election campaign, Tsai made it clear that she would be seeking to keep the current statu quo in cross-strait relations. For the DPP this means upholding the existence of two de facto independent governments -Taiwan and mainland China- while keeping the fiction that both are the legitimate government of all China, including Taiwan.

Analysts say Taiwanese voters in part turned their backs on the Kuomintang because they feared that policies undertaken by the KMT-led government since 2008 could bring Taiwan too close to China and, in the medium and long run, could signal the end of Taiwanese self-rule, and with it, the regime of freedom and democracy enjoyed by the Taiwanese, if compared to mainland China.

An event that took place the day before the election is an example of those fears. Taiwanese popstar Chou Tzu-yu, 16, appologized in a video on Friday for having hoisted the Taiwanese flag. The issue came to the campaign forefront, with president-elect Tsai saying that "holding a Taiwan flag is a legitimate expression of national identity."

The pro-independence camp believes Chou was forced by the South Korean company that supports her band to record the video repentance. To indy supporters, it is clear that the company seeks to avoid problems with Beijing, and fears retaliation from the Chinese government vis a vis any action that shows Chou's pride of Taiwanese identity -access to the world's biggest market could be at stake.

An upward trend in Taiwanese identification

The last period of Kuomintang government (2008-2016) coincided with an unprecedented increase in the number of islanders who identify solely as Taiwanese. According to annual surveys by Taipei's National Chengchi University, 60% of respondents said in 2014 they considered themselves to be only Taiwanese, while 33% answered they were both Taiwanese and Chinese. Those saying they were only Chinese did not even stand at 5%.

The data are in sharp contrast with the 2007 results, when the first two options were tied, 45% of people supporting each. The gap is even bigger if compared to the 1992 results. At that time, people saying they were both Taiwanese and Chinese stood at almost 50%. Those choosing the Chinese-only option were 25%, and the Taiwanese-only camp came third, with less than 20% of the preferences.

Such a sharp increase in Taiwanese-only identity does not match, however, support for independence. According to a 2015 poll released by Taiwanese newspaper United Daily News, 55% of those surveyed supported maintaining the statu quo in the long term, while another 28% declared themselves to be in favour of full independence. Reunification with China was the third preferred choice, with just 13%.

The data indicate that in the short term, the Taiwanese people seem to prefer cementing their de facto statehood and consolidating their own identity, separate from China's, while avoiding possible heightened tensions with China. Economic and military threats from Beijing could be expected if the Taiwanese government made concrete steps to formally declare independence. Statu quo is thus the choice for many, including the new president.