Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Lai Ching-te leads polls in Taiwan’s presidential race and has done so for months. But those polls have narrowed in recent weeks, and negotiations between the Chinese National Party (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) present the possibility of unifying the main opposition against Lai. This invites a question: If Lai was to win the election, but did so without an absolute majority of votes, much less a share below 40%, would it affect how he could govern?
The question exists because Taiwan’s presidential election operates with a first-past-the-post system, where only a simple majority is required to win. There’s no run-off election. This means it’s possible to win with less than 50% of the vote, as the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) did in 2000, winning with 39.3% of a vote that split three ways.
The experience under Chen’s presidency, where lack of a powerful mandate is cited as a key source of political gridlock, is commonly referenced as an example of how lack of an absolute majority can harm a president’s ability to govern. Professor Tang Te-Chung (湯德宗) of National Taiwan University, for instance, recently suggested that if someone like Chen Shui-bian is elected president with less than 40% support, their democratic legitimacy will suffer because opposition to their leadership outweighs support.
More pointedly, Chen’s time as Taiwan president has recently been used to suggest that the combination of a low percentage of the overall vote for Lai and the possibility of no majority in the legislature — two separate votes held on the same day — could offer the Chinese Communist Party room to “decredibilize” the DPP and the Taiwanese democracy more widely.
Mathieu Duchatel, a policy analyst at Institut Montaigne, wrote last week: “Taiwan’s ‘divided government’ during the Chen Shui-bian presidency was a constant power struggle between the executive and the legislative branches. It led for example to frozen arms acquisition as the bills were blocked in parliament. It also created the foundations of a legitimacy crisis for the Chen presidency.”
This comparison is echoed by Ben Goren, co-founder and director of communications at the Taiwan Policy Centre. “I think If Lai wins like Chen Shui-bian did in 2000 with under 40% of the vote, [he] will have less political capital with which to push any policy that might challenge powerful interests in the bureaucracy or economy,” he told Domino Theory via a written exchange, adding: “especially so if the DPP only retains a small majority or loses its majority but remains the largest party.”
For Goren, the presidential vote share operates in dialogue with parliamentary vote share. “His vote share will have less impact if the DPP can retain their majority, so the down ticket races are just as important as the presidential vote for the DPP. It’s important to remember that in 2004 Chen technically secured over 50% of the vote. However, a lack of control of the parliament and well organized opposition to him ensured he was not able to substantively implement much policy during his second term. So whilst winning the presidency is important, Taiwan is a bit like the French system — if the opposition controls the legislature, there has to be compromise or there will be deadlock.”
The reason for that is that Taiwan’s political system is semi-presidential. Legislation or budgets must be approved by the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament. Others who share this analysis lean even further toward the importance of attaining a majority in parliament.
“‘It’s not only about whether Lai gets more than 40% that matters, but also about who controls the parliament. We must consider the presidential candidates, their respective party votes and lists, and the regional legislative candidates,” Rita Jhang (張竹芩), a board member at the North American Taiwan Studies Association, wrote by email. “[The] DPP alone may not secure the majority in the parliament this time. Therefore, whether or not the pan-green/pan-Taiwan sovereignty camp can collectively win the majority is crucial.”
For Jhang, this means that relationships between parties which tends to press for more distant relations with China — pan-green parties — are now an important point to focus on.
As Ke Wen-je’s (柯文哲) TPP and the KMT discuss the possibility of running together, Jhang suggests that they should be treated as a “unified entity,” meaning Lai’s DPP must find ways to work with other, pan-green parties. These include the larger New Power Party and smaller parties aiming to surpass the 5% party vote threshold to secure at least two parliamentary seats, such as the TSP (Taiwan Statebuilding Party), the GPT (Green Party Taiwan), the TSU (Taiwan Solidarity Union) and the TOPEP (Taiwan Obasan Political Equality Party). The “DPP should keep these allies close while respecting their platforms, as they are needed to form a de facto majority in the parliament. This ensures checks and balances, even if Lai loses the presidential election,” Jhang said.
In other words, tactics on the pan-green side will be key to how the election plays out, Jhang said. “It’s pretty impossible for these small parties to all pass the 5% threshold and join the DPP in the parliament, so the DPP also needs to work with these small parties at the regional level to make sure they do not compete with each other, and the pan-green camp can win over the pan-blue camp.”
An even more staunch view in favor of the importance of the legislature vote is Chao-Hsiang Chu (曲兆祥), a professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at National Taiwan Normal University. He doesn’t believe an absolute majority in the presidential race is significant because an absolute majority doesn’t ultimately affect the basic outcome of who becomes president. But on the legislative side of the election, he believes Lai’s current polling presents a major challenge.
“If his party does not win a majority [of] over half of the whole 113 seats in parliament, or the opposition parties hold the majority [of] more than the half seats, then the new government will face great difficulties bitterly,” Chu wrote by email, adding: “And a bad news for Mr. Lai and his party is that under my estimation, the DPP … gets around 50 seats [from a] total 113 seats.” This would mean the DPP losing its majority.
The conclusion from Chu: “This situation will make his new government crippled.”
Of course, it should be added that the opposite of these predictions doesn’t always ensure a smooth ride either. In 2014, during the Sunflower Movement, then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) won an absolute majority in the presidential election and had overall, pan-blue control of the legislature. The favorable math didn’t stop his government eventually giving in to protesters over a major trade deal with China. It’s just that it’s a much easier place to start out.