Pro-independence forces have been rattled by their surprise loss in the ‘midterm’ local elections.
Taiwan’s midterm election on November 24 saw a major political reversal, with several Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) cities and counties lost to the Kuomintang Party (KMT).
– The electoral swing was prompted by discontent with the DPP’s leadership rather than the KMT’s policies
– The DPP’s defeat revealed a rupture within the pan-Green camp
– The KMT’s success is no guarantee that it will win in the 2020 General Election
– In contrast to previous years, voters were more concerned with localised socio-economic issues than fears over China
– China is likely to reward the cities and counties that voted for the KMT and continue to punish pan-Green regions to assist the KMT’s electoral comeback
– The election revealed a weakening in the legitimacy of Taiwan’s two-party dominated system, although the system is likely to remain intact
Taiwan’s November 24 election saw a major pendulum swing, with the DPP losing seven of its 13 cities and counties held since 2016 and the KMT regaining 15 of them. The referenda that occurred simultaneously added fuel to fire by eroding the DPP’s confidence in its domestic governance. Consequently, President Tsai Ing-Wen resigned from the party’s leadership.
Although public opinion data has not been revealed, it was clear from the election fervour that many voters were unhappy with the state of Taiwan’s socio-economic welfare. DPP Premier Lai Qingde acknowledged the party’s governing failure by noting the slow growth and the worsening of income inequality. Concerns over the party’s pension and labour reforms were also raised, as were the backlash from referenda on same-sex marriage and the naming of Taiwan in the 2020 Olympics. Tsai’s mismanagement of cross-strait relations may have had an impact: her unwillingness to accept the ‘1992 Consensus’ has strained Sino-Taiwan relations and undermined Taiwan’s economy and de facto independence, with Beijing’s continuing to erode Taiwan’s diplomatic clout.
Thus the midterms result was partly Tsai and the DPP’s failure to balance between managing bread-and-butter issues and acting tough on China. The Kaoshiung municipality is a prime example: a known DPP stronghold for more than 20 years, the party overestimated its receptiveness and overlooked local economic hardships. Youth unemployment was high and tourism was hit hard by disputes with China. As a result, the majority (64.89%) voted for KMT candidate Han Guoyu, who launched a campaign with the promise to make Kaoshiung rich again; DPP candidate Arthur Chen’s emphasis was on an anti-China rhetoric. While the ‘China Threat’ discourse still looms large in Taiwan, the majority appeared to have lost faith and demanded a change in party leadership.
Even as Tsai lost moderate pan-Green supporters, the ‘Deep Greens’ (radical pro-independent supporters) have grown impatient of Tsai’s tentative advocacy for Taiwan’s independence. Many saw her cross-strait policy as too soft on Beijing and were critical of her political ties with blue and mainlander officials. They may have stayed home instead of voting for the DPP. Given the split between moderate and radical supporters of DPP, the party might find it increasingly difficult to bridge the ideological fissure.
IMPACT ON TAIWAN-CHINA RELATIONS
Tsai has said that she will maintain the ‘status quo’ with China, implying continued non-compliance to China’s request to adhere to the 1992 Consensus. She has remained uncompromising on her ideological commitment, asserting that “the DPP will hold on to freedom and democracy… No matter how hard this path is, we must do the right thing.” This is problematic for the party’s voter base if Tsai’s commitment does not come with a practical emphasis. The midterms has illustrated that many Taiwanese have grown tired of supporting a party that does not deliver on their welfare, despite remaining cautious of China. The DPP will need to strike a new balance between resisting Beijing’s aggression and resolving the underlying socio-economic issues.
For the KMT, its attempt to improve the economic well-being of its cities and counties has seen the resurgence of cross-strait economic engagement with Beijing. Han and other elected mayors are currently spearheading China-friendly initiatives, although it remains unclear how they will do so against the authority of the DPP-dominated central government. Nonetheless, they will be cautious about formulating policies that undermine Taiwan’s democracy and relative independence lest they incur another outrage akin to the 2014 Sunflower movement. The experience will serve as a check from moving too close to Beijing.
For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the election provided a renewed impetus to advance its campaign of peaceful reunification. The Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) interpreted the electoral outcome as a successful attempt by China to punish Tsai for not abiding by the 1992 Consensus. With the reopening of cross-strait engagement, Beijing has promised to reward the 15 cities and counties that voted for the KMT and punish those that voted for the DPP regions with continued sanctions — albeit with a condition that cross-strait exchanges be upheld on the basis of ‘proper understanding’. Beijing hopes this carrot-and-stick approach will attract more Taiwanese to support the KMT and other pan-Blue (pro-reunification) parties in the 2020 General Election.
In the longer term, Beijing is likely to capitalise on the momentum of the KMT’s resurgence to expand pro-Chinese communities in Taiwan. Beijing fears the progressive de-Sinification of Taiwan, which over time has produced generations who are not part of the KMT’s historical struggle and who are raised in an anti-Communist environment. Beijing is thus reforming its United Front Work Department by reaching out to younger generations and nurturing inter-cultural marriages. It hopes that a younger generation of pro-Chinese elites will eventually take the helm in Taiwan to usher in the era of peaceful reunification.
INSTABILITY IN THE TWO-PARTY DOMINATED SYSTEM
The November election also revealed a weakening in Taiwan’s political system of two-party dominance. A pre-election survey in July conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation found that nearly 50% of voters do not align themselves with a particular party. These voters may choose to vote based on their own interests rather than party ideology, which makes future elections unpredictable.
This unpredictability is exacerbated by the arrival of third parties in Taiwan’s politics. Of particular note is the election of Ko Wen-zhe in Taipei, which came against the backdrop of non-affiliation with the major parties. He has represented himself as an alternative to those who have grown tired of the Blue-Green polarisation, and there is speculation about the emergence of a ‘White Force’ that goes beyond pan-Blue and pan-Green camps.
Ko has proven himself capable of challenging the two major parties. However, it remains uncertain whether he or his ‘White Force’ will be powerful enough to rival the KMT and the DPP at the 2020 General Election, given that the ‘White Force’ consists of mostly cast-offs from the blue and green camps. Ko’s narrow win also limits the prospect of him contesting for the presidency. The two-party dominated system is therefore likely to prevail, albeit with less sway than before.