Taiwan's pro-China political party, the Kuomintang (KMT), was royally walloped in last weekend's 'nine-in-one' nationwide local elections, losing 60% of their seats. As I wrote previously, these elections are important because they are widely seen to serve as a barometer for the 2016 presidential election. The upcoming election of Taiwan's new president will have regional implications for Asia, particularly for the tangled web of North Asian political relations and geostrategic tensions.
29 November marked the KMT's largest defeat in recent electoral history.
They won only six of the 22 constituencies in the mayoral and commissioner elections (the KMT previously held 15 of these 22 positions), a worse outcome than in 1997 when it only managed to secure 8 of 23 seats. The less Beijing-friendly Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 13 seats, taking back swathes of Taiwan and doubling its control. Independents nabbed the remaining three (the new electoral map on the right, previous on the left). For seat-by-seat analysis, including the DPP's shock win in Taoyuan, head to the Thinking Taiwan website or one of these blogs.
As polling predicted, the position of Taipei mayor was captured by independent candidate Dr Ko Wen-je, whose election broke the KMT's 16-year stranglehold on the island's capital. A trauma surgeon by background, Ko's victory speech focused on the need for a more open government, greater public participation and an assurance that he would improve the impartiality of the public service. Since Taiwan introduced direct presidential elections in 1996, every single president has first been mayor of Taipei, so the rise or fall of Dr Ko Wen-je will be watched closely, not just in Taiwan, but throughout the region.
Too many in the international media have insisted that these elections were a vote on China and were deeply impacted by the situation in Hong Kong. Both of these assertions are overblown.
Voters abandoned the KMT, first and foremost, because of a string of domestic issues. Two factors that would have been in voter's minds likely included their aversion to their president (polling from last weekend shows Ma's approval rate has dropped to 9.7%) and punishing the KMT for a recycled cooking oil scandal which has received blanket media coverage in Taiwan this year. Most Taiwanese are more concerned with apartment affordability, job security and what kind of future their children will have (as was the focus of Ko's campaign) than the protests in Hong Kong or the latest development in Taiwan-China relations.
But while local issues dominated election discourse, you certainly can't discount international influences. In both Hong Kong and Taiwan, these influences run parallel, and often weave into, domestic discourse. Before voting in the 'nine-in-one' election on 29 November, each voter (other than hardline pan-blue or pan-Green supporters) would have contemplated and prioritised their own patchwork of issues. Once sewn together, Taiwanese voters chose the political party or independent that best represented their views. In Australia we are used to hearing 'there are no votes in foreign policy', but in Taiwan, there are plenty of votes in foreign policy. And by foreign policy, we mean China.
These electoral outcomes are a major setback for China-Taiwan relations and one can almost guarantee the recent momentum in cross-Strait relations will stumble.
President Ma made improving relations with China a priority. He consistently focused on promoting cross-Strait relations under the principle of 'no unification, no independence and no use of force'. But the KMT's recent trouncing makes it difficult for Ma to move forward on what can now be confirmed as a deeply unpopular policy. An editorial in the Taipei Times sums the issue up well: many Taiwanese have become suspicious of — if not hostile to — China because of widespread concerns that the rewards of liberalised cross-Strait trade are reaped only by the business elite and that increased economic reliance would only undermine Taiwan's democracy and society. This view is particularly prevalent among young people.
It is safe to say the KMT's 2016 presidential prospects look dim, and the party is imploding. On 2 December President Ma announced he was resigning as KMT Chairman (he did so on 3 December, though he remains president). KMT Premier Jiang Yi-huah and Secretary-General Tseng Yung-chuan had already pipped Ma to the post, resigning immediately following the elections. The KMT's own post-mortem, a blameless list outlining the reasons they believe they lost the election (h/t Letters from Taiwan blog), doesn't instil confidence that KMT will learn from its mistakes and put up a fight in the 2016 presidential elections.
The seriousness of the KMT's predicament was best conveyed by Li-Keng Kuei-fong, a member of KMT's Central Committee: 'This is the worst crisis for the KMT since we fled to Taiwan.'