Taiwanese voters have spoken: what do the elections mean for Tsai Ing-wen’s party, and China?

  • Sonny Lo says Taiwan’s ruling party has only itself to blame for voters’ revolt
  • However, the KMT’s strong showing does not make it a shoo-in for the presidential election, and Beijing should see the importance of respecting voters’ wishes
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 6:32am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 11:34am

The strong comeback of the opposition Kuomintang in Taiwan’s elections on Saturday has important implications not only for the island’s political development but also for cross-strait relations in the coming years. The governing Democratic Progressive Party suffered a serious setback, losing seven of the 13 city and county seats it had held since 2014, while the KMT captured 15 seats, up from only six four years ago.

Significantly, in the mayoral races, the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu convincingly defeated the DPP’s Chen Chi-mai in Kaohsiung, a traditional DPP stronghold that the party had held for 20 years, while two other KMT candidates, Hou You-yi and Lu Shiow-yen, captured New Taipei City and Taichung. In Taipei, although independent candidate Ko Wen-je declared victory, his KMT opponent Ting Shou-chung has filed for a recount. The DPP’s poor showing led to President Tsai Ing-wen’s resignation as party chairwoman, setting the stage for a DPP leadership struggle.

First and foremost, the DPP has only itself to blame for voters’ revolt. To the minds of many Kaohsiung residents, the deadly gas explosions of July 2014 and severe flooding of August 2018 were testimony to the DPP’s maladministration, and former mayor Chen Chu leaving the city to join the presidential secretariat was proof of DPP officials’ opportunism.

The victory of Han Kuo-yu, the straightforward, charismatic KMT candidate who dubbed himself a “bald-headed vegetable vendor”, was foreshadowed on the night of November 23, when a reported 150,000 residents turned up for his campaign rally. The DPP had been losing ground among farmers and workers, and the party’s elite was seen as being more interested in political power at the central level than in local governance and people’s livelihoods, a perception underlined by the KMT’s win in Kaohsiung.

Second, the uncharismatic Tsai’s resignation as DPP chairwoman has kicked off a contest for the leadership of the party. Premier William Lai appears to be a hot contender for the 2020 presidential election, while Tsai could grow increasingly unpopular and even be ousted. Regardless of who will lead the DPP in 2020, time is tight for the party, which must undergo drastic reforms to win back many Taiwanese, who have come to detest the DPP for being all slogans and no action.

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Third, the KMT’s strong showing does not mean that it is a shoo-in in the 2020 presidential race. Predictably, the political tsunami that hit the DPP over the weekend is also shaking up the KMT. Apart from former president Ma Ying-jeou, who has set up a foundation and sparked talk of his interest in a political comeback, KMT presidential contenders include Eric Chu and Wang Jin-pyng. But rising political star Han Kuo-yu, who helped the KMT win the key battleground of Kaohsiung, could emerge as a kingmaker in the selection of the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate.

Fourth, independent candidate Ko’s narrow win in the Taipei mayoral race has dimmed his presidential hopes. Even if he decides to run for president in 2020, he is unlikely to win without support from any party machinery. Although most voters who dislike both the DPP and KMT see Ko as a representative of a third force in Taiwanese politics, this third force remains loosely organised and relatively weak. It remains to be seen whether it can be a united front posing a serious challenge to the DPP and KMT.

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Fifth, most voters have taken a pragmatic approach to the referendum. They opposed three out of the 10 referendum questions, specifically the ones which asked whether the island should: use the name Taiwan at international sporting events; include gender equality in school textbooks; and, legalise same-sex marriage.

About 52 per cent, 62 per cent and 63 per cent rejected the proposals respectively, showing the conservatism of Taiwan’s voters. Hence, some members of the third force who advocate liberalising Taiwan further are likely to encounter political resistance in the short term.

The results of Taiwan’s elections also have implications for Beijing-Taipei relations. Beijing upholds the 1992 consensus between the Chinese Communist Party and the KMT, a position that Han Kuo-yu has endorsed.

Yet, the willingness of the Taiwanese to express their policy preferences in referendums means that Beijing needs to consider their wishes. As such, leaders in Beijing will have to adopt a pragmatic approach in dealing with Taiwan, emphasising measures that can and will facilitate mutual economic interaction. People’s livelihoods should be put ahead of political issues. China and Taiwan would do well to enhance socio-cultural and economic interactions in the coming years.

Sonny Lo is a professor of politics at HKU SPACE