The Tsai Administration Is Silent on Lula’s Victory. What Would It Take for That To Change?

The Tsai Administration Is Silent on Lula’s Victory. What Would It Take for That To Change?

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The Tsai administration’s passing on an opportunity to demonstrate support for democracy in Brazil is disappointing. All the more so because in 2018, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued immediate congratulations to Bolsonaro on the day of his presidential election.

Brazil’s left-wing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, universally known as Lula, will return to the presidential office after winning a close election over right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro last Sunday. Lula’s victory, a dramatic comeback from a stint in prison on politically motivated corruption charges, has been met with celebration around the world. No sign of official congratulations or acknowledgement of the election results, however, have emerged from Taiwan’s government.

Post-election congratulations, typically a pro forma diplomatic affair, took on additional significance after Sunday’s election. During the campaign, Bolsonaro gave many signals that he would not accept any result short of victory. He alleged that voting machines were rigged against him. His son, also a politician, declared that the president was the victim of “the greatest electoral fraud ever seen” days before the second round vote was held. 

Bolsonaro today came out of two days of post-election silence to indicate, without an explicit concession, that he would cooperate with a transition to the incoming Lula administration. Though Bolsonaro supporters are blocking Brazil’s highways at over two hundred points in protest, the likelihood of a coup now appears minimal.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Supporters of Lula da Silva gather on the day of the Brazilian presidential election run-off, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 30, 2022.

The risk of such an occurrence was the context in which many world leaders rapidly sent congratulations to Lula after Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court called the race Sunday evening. The Biden administration went further, congratulating Lula on his win in what it termed “free, fair, and credible elections,” an unambiguous warning to the military and pro-Bolsonaro politicians that an attempt to overturn the election results would not receive support from the United States.

The Tsai administration’s passing on an opportunity to demonstrate support for democracy in Brazil is disappointing. All the more so because in 2018, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued immediate congratulations to Bolsonaro on the day of his presidential election. The Tsai administration’s response at the time appeared so notable internationally that this in itself became news. 

Taiwan throwing its support behind Bolsonaro in 2018 was likely because the right-wing leader has been vocal in his criticisms of China. Bolsonaro ran on an anti-communist platform and vocally attacked growing Chinese economic influence in Brazil, while echoing the Trump administration’s rhetoric accusing China of attempting to cover up the origins of Covid-19. Tensions between the Bolsonaro administration and China eventually led to a spat with Chinese ambassador Yang Wanming. Yet beneath the appearance of conflict, Bolsonaro traveled to China to meet with Xi Jinping while in office and trade between the countries continued to grow.

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Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs / Twitter
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) quickly congratulated Jair Bolsonaro after he prevailed in his 2018 presidential campaign.

Lula, on the other hand, tried to cement stronger relations between China and other BRICS countries during his previous presidential term. He recently promised to farmers that he would rebuild relations with China within six months, while the Bolsonaro campaign circulated photos of Lula with Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao as part of its attacks on him. This is perhaps among the reasons for the Tsai administration’s wariness of Lula. 

Because of the widely believed possibility that Bolsonaro may contest the elections, the Tsai administration may have been waiting for the partial concession that arrived today before making any statements on Brazil’s election results, though at press time, no statements have been published.

The Tsai administration has had no issue acknowledging political leaders that took power through stolen elections in the past, as with its congratulating Juan Orlando Hernandez as president of Honduras in December 2017. This took place following elections widely viewed as rigged in Hernandez’s favor. (Hernandez has faced allegations of using police to target political opponents.) 

It’s a sad irony for the Tsai to back right-wing authoritarians in Latin American countries if they oppose China. The Tsai administration is only the second DPP administration in Taiwan’s history, the DPP having originated from the democracy movement against the KMT’s authoritarian rule. 

The KMT, too, was a right-wing regime that the U.S. backed in the interests of anti-Communism, which was what led to Taiwan enduring the dictatorial rule of the Chiangs, as well as going through what was once the world’s longest period of martial law. The KMT similarly depended on a police state in order to maintain power and jailed critics like the lawyer who would be the DPP’s first president, Chen Shui-bian.

Given this background, the KMT diplomatically aligned itself with other right-wing, nominally anti-Communist regimes in its many years in power. But in today’s changed political context, with the KMT having become the political party in Taiwan in favor of stronger ties with China and the DPP now in power, the DPP has oddly inherited the KMT’s past ties with right-wing regimes. 

This is particularly evident with regard to the efforts placed by the government on maintaining ties with Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies, which are all smaller than Taiwan, and tend to be countries with uninspiring human rights records. Taiwan maintains ties with such countries so that they speak up for it in international organizations that Taiwan is excluded from. But this has also caused Taiwan to be accused of “dollar diplomacy,” as Taiwan provides financial resources to these countries in return for recognition.

This is also true of Taiwan’s links with states that do not officially diplomatically recognize Taiwan, including the United States. Even as consensus on Taiwan is increasingly bipartisan, Taiwan has historically been reliant on Republicans hawkish toward China for support, inclusive of those that aligned themselves with former president Donald Trump. This reliance continues under the Tsai administration, which is mostly progressive in its domestic policy. Nonetheless, this makes for strange bedfellows when Republican politicians that visit Taiwan and express support in the meantime denounce universal healthcare or gay marriage domestically–particularly when the Tsai administration legalized gay marriage and Taiwan’s universal healthcare system enjoys strong, cross-party support. 

Certainly, it is to be expected that China will try to rebuild ties with Brazil under Lula, with Chinese president Xi Jinping swiftly congratulating Lula on his victory. Yet there may be little consideration from the Tsai administration that it, too, could follow the example of the Biden administration to build ties with the Lula administration, or that it has common ground with other political administrations that come to power through resisting right-wing authoritarianism. (A notable exception is President Tsai’s former press secretary and current candidate for Hualien county magistrate, Kolas Yotaka, who sent a congratulatory message on Twitter.) 

Building ties with left-wing and progressive administrations could prove a way to resist China’s growing international reach rather than wholly banking on support from right-wing administrations with whom Taiwan shares little. 


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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