On January 16, Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan’s opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), swept the presidency with 56 percent of the vote. The election also marked a major win in the concurrent legislative election, where DPP for the first time secured a majority, winning 68 of a total 113 seats. While media attention has focused on the presidential contest, control of the Legislative Yuan (LY) is likely to have a greater impact.
An examination of the circumstances under which these elections occurred point to new possibilities for the island—and for its relationship with the Mainland. The past eight years under the administration of current President Ma Ying-jeou brought about unprecedented levels of engagement and détente with Beijing. While his policies have resulted in a series of cross-Strait agreements, such as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA)—a preferential trade agreement—many have yet to see the fruits of economic engagement with the Mainland and believe that the KMT’s approach to secure these agreements have fundamentally eroded the island’s ability to withstand economic pressure from China. The electoral results demonstrated that the KMT’s campaign rhetoric, which largely emphasized its economic successes, failed to gain traction.
The makeup of the new LY presents the DPP with the opportunity to push such policies forward.
A potential coalition with the New Power Party (NPP), the third largest party with five seats, could give the DPP the supermajority needed to amend existing legislation and leave them closer than ever before to the three-fourths majority needed to revise the Republic of China (R.O.C.) Constitution (Legislative Yuan website, [accessed January 20]).  If this proves successful, Beijing fears that they could fundamentally erode the R.O.C.’s interpretation of the one China principle and present future complications in cross-Strait interactions. A breakdown of the 2016 elections is thus particularly telling and shows the extent to which Taiwan’s political landscape has shifted and Tsai’s government has been given a mandate.
Taiwan’s Voting Districts
The KMT, which held 81 seats in 2008 and 64 seats after the 2012 elections, dropped to an all-time low of 35 seats this year. The drop at the ballot box is due in part to the DPP making inroads in KMT strongholds in middle and northern parts of the island. These gains are particularly significant when structural constraints are considered.
Constitutional reforms passed in 2005 under the previous DPP president streamlined Taiwan’s parliament, reducing the number of seats by half to 113 and instituting a two-vote system, with 73 seats elected through a first-past-the-post, single member district system and 34 seats determined by proportional representation via party list (the remaining six seats are reserved for aboriginal voters by single-nontransferable vote) (Legislative Yuan [accessed January 20]). This system, however, inadvertently worked against the DPP by making certain seats that have traditionally been KMT-leaning, such as the seats for Kinmen, Matsu, and Penghu and for aborigines, less likely to be contested.  These seats are also disproportionally represented: a study undertaken by a DPP legislator in 2005 found that these districts in total hold nine seats but have an equivalent population to the single seat that represents all of Yilan, which comprises most of northeastern Taiwan.  However, since each county is required to have at least one seat, votes in some districts carry more weight than those in others (Legislation Yuan, [accessed January 20]). In Taiwan’s unicameral system, such an imbalance can have major political effects—particularly if one party is dominant in an area. 
The structure put in place by the 2005 reforms also consolidated Taiwan’s two-party system. To receive any proportional seat, a party must receive at least 5 percent of the party ballot (Legislative Yuan Website, [accessed January 20]). The high threshold barred many smaller parties from the LY, reflected in the results for the 2008 legislative elections, which saw a reduction in the number of third-party legislators.  By contrast, the 2016 election saw the participation of an unprecedented number of small parties, though only three small coalitions were able to gain seats in the LY: the New Power Party (NPP), the People First Party, and the Non-Partisan Solidarity Union (China Times, January 18).
The scope and extent of the DPP’s reach, particularly into traditional KMT strongholds, served as a resounding repudiation of the KMT’s policies and the Ma administration, indicating a loss of the KMT’s mandate to govern and sending a signal to Beijing that it will need to deal with other players on the cross-Strait stage. Legislation that a DPP-controlled LY is likely to put forth may also be cause for concern for the Mainland, on both a functional level (in terms of the content passed) and a symbolic one (in the DPP’s ability to more-or-less singlehandedly bring about structural changes to the establishment).
The Legislature’s Inner Dynamics and Taiwan’s Future
The new legislators will take their seats on February 1, starting the Ninth Legislative Yuan and bringing with it a set of new legislative priorities. Unlike the last DPP President during the 2000s, Chen Shui-bian, Tsai will not need to contend with a divided government and should face little opposition from the LY. However, President Ma’s rivalry and infighting with LY President Wang Jin-pyng (and fellow KMT member) and his inability to pass targeted policies through the Legislature has shone light on the discord that exists even when electoral victories have given a party a clear mandate.  Consequently, the relationship between the next President of the LY and Tsai will play a prominent role in how Taiwan’s future government functions.
Currently, there are clear indications that Tsai will push through a series of reforms of the Legislative Yuan, many of which were blocked when the KMT had a majority (New Talk, October 23, 2015). These reforms seek to enhance transparency within the LY, increase its effectiveness, and foster more professionalism among legislative staff members. Perhaps most critically, the reforms aim to transform the LY presidency into a nonpartisan post, or one less beholden to party interests (Storm Media, January 17). Structurally, the majority party will still determine the LY presidency, but the post will require the LY President to act more in the interest of all parties. On January 21, the DPP Standing Committee endorsed three main principles that a nonpartisan LY President and Vice President must adhere to: not to participate in any party-related event, not hold any party-related position, and not participate in any inter-party platform when LY members negotiate legislations (Apple Daily, January 21). This move has support from within both the two main parties, with Tsai and certain KMT legislators indicating their willingness to introduce legislation toward this end. Consequently, the next LY President must be capable and adept at working across party lines and coalitions, as well as be willing to concede some of the powers that had previously come with the post (Storm Media, January 17). The next LY President will also likely be responsible for instituting reforms, amending Constitutional procedures, and improving the LY’s image (Storm Media, January 18).
To preserve party cohesion, Tsai originally deferred to the DPP legislators to select the next President and Vice President of the LY as well as the Caucus Leader (Next Mag, January 18). Three major DPP legislators immediately declared their intent to run for the LY Presidency: Ke Chien-ming, the longest serving DPP legislator to date and perennial DPP Caucus Leader; Su Jia-chuan, a former DPP Secretary-General and Tsai’s running mate in 2012; and Chen Ming-wen, a loyal member of the “Tsai faction” and former Jiayi County Magistrate. On January 29, these three legislators came together and announced that Su will be the DPP’s LY candidate and implied that Ke will remain as the Caucus Leader (Storm Media, January 29). According to some sources, Tsai threw her support behind Su, and pressured various DPP factions and legislators to follow suit (Storm Media, January 28). The party has decided that with Su as the LY President, Tsai can implement LY reforms smoothly and work with the KMT to normalize LY operations. Tsai also indicated a desire to see Ke remain as Caucus Leader, a nod to his ability to whip the DPP votes and ensuring legislators fall in line in future votes.
The election of the LY’s leaders will occur at the start of the session, four months prior to Tsai’s inauguration. Even with Ma still in power, there are two or three pieces of legislative policies that the DPP would like to pass (Storm Media, January 18). The most urgent legislation the DPP wants to pass outlines the terms of the presidential transition. This would include a freeze on personnel appointments and a smooth transfer of official and top-secret documents—the latter in response to fears that notes on the prior administration’s negotiations with Beijing could be misplaced or destroyed (Apple Daily, January 20; UDN, January 21). A second piece of legislation, spurred by yet another round of ECFA negotiations right before the election, would create oversight mechanisms for future cross-Strait negotiation (Economic Daily, January 6). Many DPP supporters and legislators would also like to pass legislation on political parties’ properties, a move clearly aimed at the KMT’s massive wealth and economic seizures under martial law, which has been a perennial point of contention in Taiwan’s elections since democratization. This third piece of legislation may only be taken up after Tsai’s inauguration. This legislation may be a nod to Taiwan’s need for proper truth and reconciliation, but has also been seen as furthering the divide between the “Chinese” and “Taiwanese” identity in Taiwan.
The Ma administration would most likely oppose all three, but without any veto power, Ma’s only resort is to send legislation back to the LY for further review and to delay passage. Instead, it may be in his best interest to work with the DPP LY members on these legislations, in order to ensure that KMT views are somewhat reflected. Nonpartisan policies may also provide another viable route to inter-party cooperation. The lame-duck Ma administration and the KMT LY Caucus could collaborate with the DPP-controlled LY during the four months of divided government on strengthening food safety regulation, lowering the voting age from 20 to 18 (though this would require a constitutional amendment), and instituting a form of absentee voting.
After two electoral defeats, it may be in the KMT’s best interest to work with the DPP-dominant LY. A cooperative Ma administration would acknowledge the desire of voters for change and their repudiation of the Ma administration’s policies. With a potentially deal-making LY President, cooperating on passing popular legislation early on may generate good-will for the KMT Caucus in the LY. With the consolidation of power by the DPP in the 2014 local and 2016 national elections, the KMT has been effectively locked out of policymaking in most constituencies. The next four months will thus be critical to the future of not just the KMT in the Legislative Yuan, but also the KMT as a whole, particularly in its salience to policymaking.
With the uncertainty of how future cross-Strait relations will develop, it is also important for the Ma administration to work hand-in-hand with the incoming DPP LY majority to promote a positive cross-Strait relationship. As of writing, Tsai Ing-wen has maintained her stance of “maintaining the status quo” with China. Meanwhile, Beijing has called on her to reaffirm the “92 Consensus,” a set of principles Beijing and the Ma administration has built its détente upon. Some see Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council’s unreturned calls via a direct hotline to China’s Taiwan Affairs Office after Tsai’s election as a harbinger of downward spiral (China Review, January 28). While Tsai is unlikely to radically change cross-Strait policy herself, Beijing may be wary that some DPP legislators who are more outspoken about Taiwanese independence will function as her proxy on the issue. With the LY now in DPP control, there is a fear that more independence-minded DPP legislators could push for legislation that challenges the “status quo,” including legislation to establish a Republic of Taiwan, petition for UN membership, or even hold a national referendum on Taiwan’s independence. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, several DPP and NPP legislators have also proposed overturning Pro-Mainland changes to educational curriculum instituted by the Ma administration—a signal of de-Sinification to Beijing (Liberty Times, January 28).
In short, while the relationship between the new legislators and between the new Legislature and president-elect Tsai is yet to be seen, their interaction will ultimately shape Chinese perceptions of the new government. If the new LY functions relatively smoothly and if the two branches of government are able to soften the blue-green divide—as the new administration has called for—then Chinese wariness of the DPP government is likely to rise. Without a counterbalancing political force, the PRC will likely worry that the DPP administration will be politically unencumbered and would promote moves toward independence and recognition, in spite of continued reassurances in maintaining the status quo. This factor will play into the types of policies Beijing chooses to use toward the island, be it a “carrot” or a “stick” approach based on assessments of the direction of the overall relationship. Further complicating this is the matter of public opinion. If the public’s trust in the Legislative Yuan increases and shows confidence in the system, then Beijing will have another factor to contend with: the failure of its concerted effort to win the “hearts and minds” of Taiwan’s people.
Jessica Drun is a Bridge Award Fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research and a recent graduate of the Master’s in Asian Studies program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. The views in this essay are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of any organization with which she is affiliated.
Fa-Shen Vincent Wang graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with honors and currently works at a think tank in Washington, D.C. Vincent has also worked in the United States Congress, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and has experience with non-profits and political campaigns.
1. The New Power Party’s platform includes: normalizing Taiwan’s position as a country, enhancing minority rights, strengthening mother-tongue education, increasing Taiwan’s international presence, and perhaps most significant to Beijing, amending any Constitutional clauses that muddle Taiwan’s status as a country.
New Power Party “基本主張” <https://www.newpowerparty.tw/pages/基本主張>.
2. Kinmen, Matsu, and Penghu are island clusters between Taiwan proper and the mainland. The strategically important islands bristle with military bases whose soldiers and their families have traditionally voted for the KMT. Kinmen and Matsu, especially, are right off the coast of Fujian Province, P.R.C., but the Taiwanese still classify these as counties under Fujian Province, R.O.C.
3. Chen Chaozheng, National Policy Foundation “單一選區兩票制對台灣未來政黨政治發展的影響”<https://www.npf.org.tw/2/3705>.
4. The study also indicated that—given the political landscape of the time—the DPP would need 40 seats or 61 percent of the 66 competitive seats to win more than half of the district seats, while the KMT only needed 40 percent, as 13 of the 79 district and aboriginal seats were locked in in the KMT’s favor; According to official electoral statistics, in 2008, the DPP received 38.2 percent of the votes in the district seats, but only 13 seats, while in 2016, the KMT received half a percentage more at 38.7 percent but received 20 seats.
Central Election Committee “第 07 屆 立法委員選舉 – 選舉分析明細類” <https://db.cec.gov.tw/histMain.jsp?voteSel=20080101A2>.
5. The People First Party (PFP) went from 20 seats to 1 and the Taiwan Solidarity Union was kicked out of the LY altogether.
Central Election Committee “第 07 屆 立法委員選舉 – 選舉分析明細類” <https://db.cec.gov.tw/histMain.jsp?voteSel=20080101A2>.
6. A substantive round up of Ma and Wang’s rivalry could be found here.
Lu Huixuan, UDN “單一選Q&A單一選” <https://blog.udn.com/ntlutw/8971538>.