What you need to know
President Tsai is resurgent after facing down challenger William Lai in DPP primaries.
The legend of Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) as the master of turning things around continues to grow. This week she slew the "god" William Lai (賴清德) , and so decisively that his insurgent forces will have to fall back into the fold or face a lonely winter come January. Any significant presidential-level rebellion is likely finished in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for this election cycle — the primary is over, and the incumbent Tsai is again the standard bearer for the party in the battle for the presidency.
The quelling of internal revolt wasn't all: Her presumptive opponents in the general election were served notice she is now the front-runner. The incumbent president trounced the two candidates the party deemed most likely to enter the race as her opponents in the general election: Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and independent Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) of Taipei.
This was a huge turnaround. Only three months ago her approval rating had been languishing in the 20-30% range for quite some time and in all prospective matchups against her opponents, both internal and external, she wasn't even close; her own party was in revolt and pundits were writing her off as a long shot.
Tsai has led her party through a series of remarkable turnarounds since she took the position of party chair in 2008, restoring hope when all seemed lost more than once. This time, however, the turnaround was from a disaster very much of her own creation: The disastrous landslide loss in the November 2018 local elections saw most of the country swing to the opposition KMT, including key battlegrounds such as Taichung and Changhua and the previously assumed unassailable bastion of Kaohsiung City. Though the international press tried to paint this as a victory for pro-China forces, locally the consensus was clear that the loss was largely tied to domestic issues, especially the performance of the president's administration on bread-and-butter issues. Her administration's handling of pensions and transitional justice predictably produced some enemies, but those were mostly in the opposition camp to begin with (though it probably helped drive opposition turnout). It was her mishandling of issues like labor laws and marriage equality where she lost people on all sides of the divide, including many from her own camp.
As both party chair and president, the responsibility for that loss fell on her. In the aftermath she resigned as chair, premier William Lai bolted, and the cabinet was reshuffled. Tsai's approval ratings were dire, and the beginning rumblings of internal revolt appeared when "An Open Letter to President Tsai — Please Do Not Seek Re-election" penned by a few heavyweight party elders was published in several newspapers in January 2019.
The real insurrection began in March. To the surprise of almost everyone, including many in his own faction, William Lai announced his entry into the DPP primary to challenge Tsai. It is rare for any challenge to an incumbent to occur, and it has never happened to a sitting president. Lai, as her own previously appointed premier, had also previously stated he wouldn't challenge her in the primary. The sense of betrayal was palpable.
This was dire news for the president on many fronts. William Lai was nicknamed "God Lai" by the media for his seemingly untouchable high popularity. His main public line of attack was that following the disastrous local elections the Tsai presidency was so weakened only he could lead the party to victory: In spite of the fact he had been part of her administration and that this would create a situation where the party's candidate for president would, in effect, be running against a government led by a president of his own party — an awkward situation at best. Lai was the darling of the old school Taiwan independence base of her party and has an image of being strong on Taiwan sovereignty, in spite of Lai's stance that Taiwan already is an independent nation with the name "Republic of China", which is exactly the same stance held by the president.
Most dangerous for the president was that the primary was scheduled for only three weeks away, and that the primary was simply a public opinion poll: One she was almost certain to lose at the time. The essential Taiwan politics blog Frozen Garlic has an excellent description of the how, why and the possibility of this having been engineered as a surprise attack by Lai and his supporters here.
Lai's challenge was a serious threat to party unity. Some chose to rally around the president against the interloper — most notably some of the top party brass and decision makers. This internal challenge hadn't been planned on or prepared for: The last two presidents had similarly bad approval ratings at the same time in their presidencies, but once campaigning began in earnest, they were able to win over the public and win re-election. Tsai was busy with governing and hadn't begun campaigning yet — Lai was hitting her when she was down following the local election defeats and Tsai was totally unprepared and largely defenseless.
To head off Lai, she had to buy time. Initially, and to little complaint, she got a short delay due to a previously scheduled overseas diplomatic trip. The party brass tried to negotiate with Lai to run as her vice-presidential candidate, or otherwise not challenge Tsai. He wasn't interested.
They then delayed again ... and again in order to keep negotiations going, or so they said. It shouldn't have taken that long for them to realize that Lai wasn't interested in any offers to step aside: He was in it to win.
The reality was the party was rigging the game against Lai by changing the rules with the repeated delays. It was also true that the rules had been originally agreed on with the assumption there wouldn't be a primary challenger sprung on them unexpectedly, especially by someone who had previously been a loyal teammate. Both sides supporters grew bitter and acrimonious, but kept the direct personal attacks to a minimum. The longer the negotiations and delays dragged on the more Lai's supporters cried foul. Also at issue was the format of the primaries: Lai wanted to stick to landlines only, Tsai's supporters wanted half landlines and half cell phones. The betting was that Lai's older support base would give him the leg up in landlines, while Tsai's younger support base would be better represented in cell phone polling. Another issue was against whom the candidates would be compared.
Tsai and her supporters's gambit to buy time worked, allowing her to begin campaign style activities and a chance to reconnect with voters. Her approval numbers began to rise — but polling showed they remained neck-and-neck, with different polls showing different results.
However, Tsai didn't just need to win: She needed to win decisively. Her only hope of unifying the party after the primary would be if she was unambiguously the winner. Anything less and the unfairness of the repeated delays and the obvious buying for time would haunt her and damage her in the party, possibly leading to fracturing of the party. However, a decisive win would completely undermine the main rationale used by Lai in running in the first place: That he was the only candidate who could lead the party to victory in January 2020. If Tsai could bury that, his supporters would have to face the choice of staying with the party and having a chance of being on the winning side on election day, or risking breaking with the party on behalf of a candidate who had already repeatedly said he'd back whoever won the primary — something Tsai did not offer in return. While her popularity was recovering, the problem for Tsai was that the race had only improved from a certain loss to them being fairly close in the polls. This could still go either way. Continuing to delay was testing the patience of everyone, and their excuses were growing increasingly thin. They were running out of time.
Finally the format was negotiated and agreed upon and the dates set. A televised debate would be held for each candidate to make their final pitches on June 8. The public opinion primary polling would take place the week of June 10 until five different polling companies had each compiled at least 3000 samples — half landline, half cell phone — for a total of 15,000 samples total. They were to compare the two DPP candidates in a theoretical three-way election versus the KMT's Han Kuo-yu and independent candidate Ko Wen-je.
The June 8 debate was the last high-profile forum for the two to shine or strike a decisive blow against the other. Neither did: The debate was so dull the commercials seemed exciting. Tsai was solid, businesslike and presidential. A likable Lai made his case he was more electable and would resurrect the spirit of the DPP's 2016 victories. However, little differentiated the two in substance, and both came across more as academics presenting papers than politicians of the people. They even dressed alike.
Importantly in the debate and during the campaigning while both sides vented some frustration, and anger at times seemed to roil under the surface, neither side went fully negative against the other. Likely both knew that party unity would be much harder to recover after the primary if they did so.
Over two months after the primary was originally scheduled, the week finally arrived. A poll taken over the weekend prior by the Apple Daily showed Tsai with a 2.4% lead — easily within the margin of error of 3.35%. In short, going into the week the two were neck-and-neck.
Then chaos erupted in Hong Kong as police tear gassed and shot rubber bullets at unarmed protesters while rumors flew that the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) stood at the ready to intervene (probably false, but the rumors increased tension nonetheless days after the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre). As political commentator Michael Turton commented to The News Lens, "Can you imagine the polling firm calls and you've got Hong Kong on the TV in the background?"
On Thursday the results were released: Tsai won, beating Lai by a solid 8.2%. While not quite a landslide, it was a strong and respectable win. Lai's case he was the best candidate to lead the party into 2020 was effectively and thoroughly quashed. With the results out, Lai gave a speech with a strong call for the party to unite behind Tsai and win the presidency in 2020: The country depended on it, as China's actions in Hong Kong showed. This was an important move on the part of Lai. Insurrection had failed: To secure his future in the party he needed to walk back his rebellion and pledge loyalty to the new undisputed leader. Once the presumed heir apparent for 2024, Lai's speech began a process that may see him over time regain enough trust to once again take over that role. For her part, Tsai also worked to promote unity, saying "By having an open competition, we can have progress. I want to thank Lai for his criticism, so that I can reflect on where my blind spots and problems are". While her sincerity may be questionable, her olive branch was unmistakable.
Though the weeks and months ahead may yet throw intra-party obstacles in her path — in fact this is likely — they are now likely to be related to the concurrent legislative election: Any presidential candidate from within the DPP party ranks running as an independent would have thin support, and would likely be opposed by William Lai. Troubles at the district level aren't new.
Some big lessons came out of the primary. While the 50-59 age group were evenly split in which candidate to support, all other groups supported Tsai. One huge takeaway is that voters under 40 rallied back to Tsai in huge numbers, defeating Lai by 24.8% in the 20-29 demographic and by 15.3% in the 30-39 group. Anecdotally this group largely abandoned Tsai in the 2018 local elections. One possible reason they returned is that after two years of dithering, the Tsai administration finally passed a same-sex marriage law several weeks prior. This issue is in many ways a symbolic one to the younger generation, who overwhelmingly support it. This may mean that Tsai has won back some of their trust: Or more likely just enough to make her the more palatable candidate compared to the other options. Lai was crushed in this demographic, with him as the proposed DPP candidate the youth vote swung solidly over to independent candidate Ko Wen-je, with Ko garnering 53.3% to Lai's 14.1% among 20-29-year-olds. Tsai roughly held even against Ko among younger voters, but defeated him in the older demographics for an overall lead.
Another possible big lesson, which is supported by polling after past similar actions and statements, is that when Tsai stands firm and strong in the face of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aggression, the public strongly supports her. This primary may have been something of a test in this regard: Lai is untested, Han (and all of the KMT candidates this cycle) has been making strong appeals to move closer to China, and Ko has made statements that make it hard to pin down exactly what he supports — other than more cooperation with China than is happening under the current Tsai administration. In polling regarding sovereignty and national identity, Tsai is fairly close to the mainstream view: The KMT candidates are far off the national consensus on the issue, being far more friendly to the CCP than the general public is likely comfortable with. That the crisis is Hong Kong occurred while the primary was taking place quite possibly gave her the decisive edge.
Against the opposition, Tsai — at least for now — is holding the youth vote against possible independent candidate Ko and easily crushes primary candidate Han Kuo-yu of the KMT among the young. Tsai did well against both candidates across the board. Ko edged her by a slight 1.1% in the 30-39 demographic, but she swept the rest. Alarmingly for Han supporters, the only demographic he led Tsai in was in his core 50-59 group, and then only by 0.4%. Overall Tsai beat Han by 11.2% and Ko by 13% — a huge turnaround from a few months ago when both easily led her by up to double those numbers.
Not all is rosy for Tsai going into the general election according to the numbers, however. She faces a noticeable deficit in female voters — one which impacted both her and Lai, with male supporters supporting her over female voters by 4.9% and males supporting Lai by a lead of 6.1% — suggesting weaker DPP support among women. Interestingly, support by women and men was basically even for Han, and men were only slightly more in favor of Ko — but female voters were roughly 7% more likely to still be considering their choice. Additionally, while there was a strong shift by younger voters back toward Tsai now that the same-sex marriage law has been passed, and has served her well in the primary — younger voters aren't as likely to vote as the core demographics supporting Han Kuo-yu, or any KMT candidate, if they aren't strongly motivated next January (the opinion poll, after all, didn't require anything more than answering questions on the phone). Young voters often live far from their registered family domiciles for college or work, meaning voting for them requires considerable commitment in time and money. Han, as the DPP chosen KMT proxy for their primary, has been weakening somewhat recently in the polls, drawing roughly even with Terry Gou (郭台銘) — who does do better with younger voters. However, supporters of the KMT currently think Gou is stagnating in the polls, and are growing openly worried that "Tsai might turn the tables" as was recently published on the official KMT website. The other major candidate on the KMT side, Eric Chu (朱立倫), failed to excite voters in his 2016 run against Tsai, though Tsai herself bounced back from her 2012 failed presidential run to win in 2016 — so it is too early to totally rule Chu out. Tsai, though, is a proven master at the turnaround.
Editor: Cat Thomas
- Ko Wen-je
- Tsai Ing-wen
- Eric Chu
- Taiwan politics
- President Tsai Ing-wen
- William Lai
- Han Kuo-yu
- Tsai Ing-wen approval rating
- 2020 presidential campaign
- Taiwan 2020 presidential election
- Terry Gou
- Taiwan 2020 presidential race
- 2020 DPP primary