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Taiwanese Democracy: How an Election Can Change the Chinese-Speaking World

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(source: Getty Images)

On Saturday, Tsai Ing-Wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won the Presidency of Taiwan with a landslide 56% of the vote against the previously ruling party, Koumintang’s (KMT) Eric Chu. She is also Taiwan’s first female president. Tsai, as described by western media, is a British-educated, soft-spoken woman who owns two cats. But perhaps more importantly, Tsai is now the most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world.

This is Tsai’s second presidential bid after an unsuccessful run in 2012. In fact, Tsai will be only the second member of the DPP to ever serve as Taiwan’s president, as the KMT has been in power for most of the past 70 years. But increasing anxiety of close Chinese relations, a strained Taiwanese economy, and a questionable lack of transparency has colored the recent years of KMT’s struggling grip on the country.

Most notably, this election marks the changing tides in Taiwanese-Chinese relations. The KMT has historically worked to increase Taiwanese relations with China. In fact, this past fall, the leaders of Taiwan and China came together for a historic meeting. But across the board, Pro-Independency dominated the polls. At the eve of the elections, Chou Tzu-yu, a 16-year old Taiwanese K-pop star, was forced to bow down and apologize for a photo in which she held up a Taiwanese flag. Her agency, JYP Entertainment, had her read a statement in which she renounced Taiwan’s sovereignty. This sparked wide-spread backlash which correlated with the surge in Pro-Independence voting.

Not only did the Pro-Independent Tsai Ing-Wen and the DPP win, but a Pro-Independent third-party, the New Progressive Party (NPP), also saw victory with the election of Freddy Lim (a literal death metal rocker) to Taiwanese Parliament. Lim fronts the new DPP-aligned party, which was formed by radically-minded student and civic activists after the Sunflower Movement, a student-led demonstration, which stormed the Taiwanese Parliament’s assembly hall in 2014 to protest legislature that would strengthen economic ties to China.

These recent political activism movements and the generally electric political atmosphere transformed the Taiwanese democratic process into an event in which the rest of the Chinese-speaking world wanted to participate. Thousands of overseas Taiwanese returned to vote in this historical election. Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong “election tourists” flooded the country to curiously witness stump speeches and party rallies. Skeptical Mainland students studying abroad in Taiwan, an estimated 10,000 of them, watched the election from an unsettled perch. And yet, good or bad, Taiwan’s election outcomes stand as an example of how voting in a democratic society can affect change. This Saturday, over 12 million votes were cast on either side, but for the Taiwanese, the peaceful transfer of power from the KMT to the DPP attests that democracy is the true winner.

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