What you need to know
A catastrophic Democratic Progressive Party defeat leaves the party's strategy in pieces and paves the way for a hotly contested 2020 presidential race.
Taiwan issued a resounding rejection of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) at the polls on Nov. 24, gifting a landslide local election victory to the opposition Kuomintang (KMT).
Read nationally, swing voters who helped catapult the party to power pushed back against anemic wage growth and sluggish progress towards economic transformation.
Central Election Commission data showed the KMT secured 15 of 22 mayoral and county magistrate seats, rebounding from just six and claiming 48.8 percent of the vote, while the DPP lost seven of the 13 seats it held when voting began, and saw its voter share eroded to 39.2 percent.
This was a flat rejection of the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), which lost support from progressives disappointed at failures to to follow through on promises of support for same-sex marriage, and insinuations of action toward independence.
“Tsai came into office with unrealistic expectations,” said Kharis Templeman, the Taiwan Democracy Project Manager at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. “She’s unable to do the things her deep-Green base wants – on Taiwanese independence or other symbolic issues – and the economic transformation swing voters were hoping for is not something you can do quickly.”
Tsai also alienated a crucial constituency of retired public servants and military veterans by enacting a pension reform that was criticized as unconstitutional and which triggered several protests earlier this year.
“People are disgruntled with Tsai and how she dealt with reform,” said Albert Chiu, Associate Professor of Legislative Process and Political Psychology at Tunghai University in Taichung. “Reform was framed as a must-do, and whoever disagrees is backwards, or somehow against society – those accusations upset a lot of people.”
Labor unions and other workers' representatives also felt betrayed by amendments to the Labor Standards Act pushed through late last year that did too little to protect their rights, particularly those of shift workers such as nurses and drivers.
This negativity was accentuated by a DPP campaign that focused on Chinese interference and identity politics, a notion that voters rejected as complacent and failing to acknowledge their grievances.
“The DPP made several allegations of Chinese interference in the election, [while] trying to make this an election about identity, saying things like ‘We have to win this county or city as we have to protect it for democracy,’ – a lot of voters were turned off by their arrogance,” said Ross Darrell Feingold, a Taipei-based political analyst who advises multinational clients on geopolitical issues.
Feingold also stressed that while it is clear voters were subjected to China-sourced disinformation relating to the elections, it would be a disservice to voters to suggest they had been unduly influenced by such messaging. “There have [also] been several accusations of Chinese money fueling KMT campaigns, but there have yet to be any prosecutions on violations of electoral laws,” he added.
Taiwan Investigation Bureau Director-General Leu Wen-jong (呂文忠) said in October his agency had received “solid evidence” of alleged vote-buying by Beijing, but this proclamation has not led to judicial action as of yet.
Han Kuo-yu and a local sea of Blue
On a local level, and specifically the mayoral contests, this narrative of national dissatisfaction fed into a series of mismatched races in which DPP candidates ran up against more compelling KMT counterparts.
Nowhere was this more evident than the southern city of Kaohsiung, where reborn KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) comfortably defeated the DPP’s Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁), confounding observers who had not given his so-called “Blue wave” due credence.
Given Han’s lack of prior engagement with Kaohsiung or its politics – and the the DPP’s 20-year-long control of the city – this was widely expected to be at least a close contest.
But Han’s message – smartly intertwining promises of economic rejuvenation for Kaohsiung, a city he described as “old and poor,” with bombastic claims of tapping the oil reserves around Taiping Island in the South China Sea – struck a resounding chord.
“Voters decided they like a straight talker like Han over Chen, who was well qualified, but they preferred Han’s focus on the economy,” said Feingold. “This is not different from other elections internationally – the straight talker winning over the policy candidate – just look at [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines, Joko Widodo in Indonesia, or recent U.S. and European elections.”
In spite of his shining bald pate, Han exudes virtus – like an action figure airdropped on a mission to singlehandedly defeat a corpulent foe – and his vigor and vitality played extremely well with a media and public weary of bipartisan strife and eager for a populist focus on the economy.
Moreover, Han's near-omnipresence on the promotional material of KMT candidates all over the country, helped swing the vote across the country.
“Han created momentum for all the KMT candidates,” said Chiu. “He went beyond Kaohsiung, up to Taipei, Hsinchu, and Miaoli, and appeared hand-in-hand with city council candidates; people took photos and put them on highways, and this strengthened the image of Han as a leader of the KMT.”
Han’s victory also offers food for thought for those who questioned whether his demonstrable online support – he has more than half a million Facebook followers and a dedicated news account with 90,000 fans – would translate into votes.
Commentators suggested these numbers were inflated by support from Chinese online accounts and would fall away at the polls. However, according to Tunghai University’s Chiu, the truth is they reflect a new reality on the campaign trail.
“Han’s support on Facebook and other social media was not overstated, it was consistent,” said Chiu, adding that a lot more candidates, mayors, even down to local units, including city councilors, have been going on Facebook Live – showing an extension of the more sophisticated online campaigns that were pioneered by Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) in the 2014 elections.
Elsewhere, Taichung was supposed to be a close race but emerged as a trouncing for incumbent DPP Mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍), which Stanford’s Templeman suggested should be read as an index for the situation across the country.
“The swing to KMT across the island was consistent,” he said. “In 2014 in Taichung, Lin won with between 56/57 percent of the vote, and this time the ratio was completely reversed, with him losing by the same amount.”
Feingold raised local factors, including the perception that Lin was disconnected and aloof during his time as mayor, as instrumental in his defeat. “Lin had the experience, but was perceived a bit as being above the public,” Feingold said. He also suggested the public was not enamored by the type of candidates being put forward by the DPP – policy-focused establishment figures personified by the likes of New Taipei Mayoral candidate Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), whose back catalogue of major government postings represented a step backwards in the eyes of voters.
Tellingly, Tsai has already responded positively to entreaties that the election defeat necessitates opening power up to the younger wing of the DPP, saying on the Facebook page of Legislator Lee Chun-yi (李俊俋) “we should allow [the younger generation] to assume greater duties.”
Did the ‘third force’ awaken?
A question posed in the run up to the election was whether the results would support the emergence of alternatives to the traditional Blue-Green bipartisan system.
Templeman told The News Lens that there was limited evidence that the two-party system is breaking up, or that there is a rise of a third force. “Ko Wen-je really struggled to get reelected, and he was a key figure in the argument that Taiwan is headed for a party realignment,” he said. “This looks like normal two-party politics to me – when the incumbent is unpopular, the opposition benefits.”
The New Power Party (NPP), which fielded local election candidates for the first time, had targeted 20 seats in city and council elections having put forward 40 candidates, but came away with 16 seats and 2.49 percent of the overall vote.
Feingold described this return as “modest,” especially when compared with the success in 2016 election, when the party won five legislative seats. “The bar to get into a council can be very low because there are multimember districts – it’s not necessarily about the party,” he said, adding that while the party had unequivocally supported progressive stances in favor of LGBT rights and against the death penalty, it had suffered “from a failure to address the day-to-day issues that concern voters.”
“Indeed, we fell short of the 20 seats target that [NPP leader] Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) aimed for, but we also see many candidates who lost only by very thin margin (so called luoxiantou (落選頭); the closest of which lost by nine votes, and legal process has been initiated,” NPP spokesman Wu Yeh-min (吳也民) told The News Lens.
“On the bright side, not only will the NPP soon have two city council caucuses in Hsinchu and Taipei, the councilors in the 10 counties/cities will be the beachhead for the groundwork that the NPP wishes to push forward on local level,” Wu said, adding that the failure of the progressive referendums, and the election of 74 of 104 candidates charged with public function- or election-related crime, presents a more worrying outlook for the party’s attempts to instill a new political culture in Taiwan.
The race ahead
The stage is now set for an epic presidential race that will likely pit incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen against Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, and a KMT candidate that will emerge from a period of internecine struggle.
The potential candidates are already playing their opening gambits, with President Tsai resigning her position as DPP chair, and pledging to take personal responsibility for the election failure: “Most importantly, I'm the one that needs to change,” she said on Monday.
Analysts suggested that the depth of the election defeat may well see a challenger to Tsai emerge from within the DPP, but that it is hard to pick out a candidate who has the necessary breadth of support to mount a decisive challenge.
“Tsai is a wily politician who is very skillful at inter-party politics,” Templeman said, acknowledging her "smart politics" in turning down Premier William Lai’s offer to resign. “They’re in this together – he has consistently polled better than she has, and she can benefit by association with him.”
However, Templeman also suggested that Lai does have flexibility to craft his own policies as Premier, but that the DPP has so far been relatively adept at keeping its internal struggles behind closed doors and would likely continue to do so.
As for the KMT, there could well be a three-way face-off between Han Kuo-yu, incumbent KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), and former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), with newly elected New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) an outside contender. Of these, Templeman suggested Ma's potential bid would be the most worrying for democracy.
"Ma is under indictment and part of his strategy is as a way to fight those charges," Templeman said. "That makes me uncomfortable. There’s also constitutional ambiguity over whether he can run. He could make a solid case that he is eligible, but the two-term limit was designed to be final," he said, concluding that either way, the KMT would do well to remember the shambolic state the former president left the party in when he ended his eight-year tenure at the helm.
According to Tunghai University’s Chiu, younger KMT politicians like Wayne Chiang (蔣萬安) now have a chance to stake their claim for power. “The door is now open, the opportunity is now,” he commented.
As for newly re-elected Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, there is a firming consensus that he will mount a presidential bid, with Chiu going as far as to predict that he will become president in 2020. If there is a third force emergent in Taiwan’s politics, he said, it is not to be found among the progressive parties, but in the “worldwide anti-professional, anti-elite sentiment that helped Han Kuo-yu to power.”
That force, to which Chiu attributes the color White to complement the existing Blue-Green spectrum, could well be harnessed by Ko, himself a former doctor rather than a dyed in the wool politico. “70 to 80 percent of the younger people will switch to Ko, and educated, middle-class will support him,” Chiu said. “A third opposition party led by Ko is realistic.”
Read Next: OPINION: How the DPP Failed Its Supporters by Becoming Another KMT
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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