Livelihoods the real winner in Taiwan polls, not ideology

  • Grass-roots pledges by the Kuomintang paid off ahead of those from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, and now it must act on them with improved cross-strait relations on the horizon
PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 9:40pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 11:23pm

Taiwan’s political map has undergone a dramatic colour reconfiguration as a result of Saturday’s local government elections, shifting from majority independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) green to Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) blue. The vote to elect mayors and other officials was largely a grass-roots affair, the focus for voters being on livelihood issues such as the economy and jobs. But the poll was also inevitably a measure of leader Tsai Ing-wen’s performance and an indicator of her chances of being re-elected in 2020; her resignation as chairwoman of the ruling DPP seemingly puts paid to the latter. The message from voters is obvious: they want a change of direction.

Tsai’s strategy since taking office in 2016 has been to push a pro-independence agenda by turning her back on the mainland in favour of better international relations, particularly with US President Donald Trump’s administration. But playing the anti-mainland and pro-US cards has not fared the island well and its economy has suffered. Beijing’s cutting of official contacts has affected investment and business, and mainland tourist numbers have fallen sharply. The US trade war with China and a rise in military tensions have created a gloomy economic outlook.

Taiwan election lost on local issues, not relations with mainland

The desire of Taiwanese for change was certainly reflected in the mayoral races, with the opposition KMT taking 15 of the 22 city and county seats, up from the six it gained in the last elections in 2014. The DPP share fell from 13 to just six, the biggest blow being the loss of two of the most important cities, Kaohsiung and Taichung. The fall of Kaohsiung to the KMT was especially bitter; the southern city has been a DPP stronghold for 20 years. The victor, Han Kuo-yu, was a rank outsider whose down-to-earth campaign pledges of bringing wealth and jobs for the young was at stark odds to the DPP strategy of highlighting political ideology.

But the KMT should not see its string of victories in terms of clever electioneering. Rather, the DPP failed to improve the lives of people through sound policies, prompting a switch of support to the opposition. Similarly, Beijing should not perceive that its policies towards Tsai’s government have been given the stamp of approval by voters. Its cautious reaction to the result is therefore justified; the shift to the KMT does not mean that Taiwanese who support independence have abandoned their cause.

The election is likely to improve cross-strait relations, with Beijing welcoming greater cooperation with the island’s cities and prefectures. Taiwan’s voters have adopted a practical stance, ignoring ideology in favour of improving lives. It is a lesson that Tsai and others, no matter their political colours, have to take to heart.