26 June 2019
Ko Wen-je, an independent candidate of humble origin, defeated 'princeling' Sean Lien from KMT in Taipei mayoral election. Photo: Storm Media Group
Ko Wen-je, an independent candidate of humble origin, defeated 'princeling' Sean Lien from KMT in Taipei mayoral election. Photo: Storm Media Group

What the Taiwan elections results tell us

Kuomintang’s (KMT) feared defeat turned out to be a crushing rout in last weekend’s local elections in Taiwan.

The ruling party not only lost five of six mayoral races, but even in the lone municipality that it managed to retain – New Taipei City — the KMT candidate, Eric Chu Li-luan (朱立倫), made it only by the skin of his teeth. More than half of seats in the city council were seized by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taiwan’s leading parliamentary opposition.

Zhuoshui (濁水溪), Taiwan’s longest river, serves as an unofficial boundary between the north and the south. Previously, top governmental posts like mayors and county magistrates in regions north of Zhuoshui were all monopolized by KMT members, but with DPP’s landmark victories in a number of counties and municipalities in northern Taiwan, that boundary has been blurred.

If the polls can be seen as a prelude to the 2016 presidential election, then it’s very likely that a candidate from the DPP will be the new master of the grand palace on Taipei’s Ketagalan Boulevard. The elections were also a referendum on KMT’s cross-strait policies after the Sunflower student movement.

KMT’s strategy for the Taipei mayoral election was nothing new. It sent princeling Sean Lien Sheng-wen (連勝文) to contend for the capital city’s top job. Lien’s clan is among the island’s most privileged. His grand grandfather Lien Heng (連橫) was a famed historian, his grandfather Lien Zhen-dong (連震東) was Taiwan’s Minister of Interior in the 1960s and his father Lien Chan (連戰) is KMT’s honorary chairman and a former Taiwan vice president. But the family has also been controversial over the years, with questions raised about the source of its wealth.

At the beginning, KMT leadership thought that with the party’s political monopoly and resources as well as the reputation of the Lien family, securing Taipei’s top post would be a given. But the reality shows how wrong they were. The little-known independent candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) won.

Also, DPP candidates with humble origins have beat KMT contenders in other local polls in Taoyuan and Yunlin.

The elections provide three lessons to Hong Kong.

First, amateurs also stand a chance to win. In Hong Kong, most people think that other than someone from the establishment camp who is endorsed by Beijing, nobody would have the qualification and mandate to run for the chief executive post. Now Taipei’s polls tell us this is not necessarily true, if it is genuine election.

Next, it’s clear that people in neighboring regions are vigilant against China’s rise to prominence as Beijing flexes its economic muscles and the Chinese flaunt their wealth. Many are offended by Beijing’s arrogance as reflected in its you-cannot-do-without-China attitude.

Given all these, Candidates with links to Beijing or those who opt to accept the latter’s economic sweeteners would be typically resisted. The Lien family is a shining example in this regard: since 2005 Lien Chan has groveled to patrons in Beijing and it’s safe to say that if Hongkongers have a similar free election today in which Leung Chun-ying is one of the candidates, he will be put to rout just like the junior Lien.

The polls also show that candidates born with silver spoon are likely to be abandoned by young voters in a society where there is a huge wealth disparity. Lien suffered, while Ko’s grassroots identity became one of his major advantages in the campaign.

Also, there are some obvious conclusions.

KMT is yet to be fully modernized to fit into a democratic society since its policy stance still tilts toward the bigwigs. The party has weathered several elections since Taiwan’s democratization in the 1990s, but its Beijing-friendly factions and other vested interests, represented by key figures like Lien Chan, remain there.

Previously Lien’s political stance was all about anti-Communism; even his doctoral dissertation was about the Chinese Communist Party’s strategies to smear and denounce Hu Shih (胡適), one of the most prominent Chinese philosophers, essayists and diplomats of the 20th century. But now, he has had a U-turn: at least once every year, Lien and his family pay a courtesy visit to China and meet the Communist Party leadership.

Communist cadres and scholars in China like to say that Western-style democracy can only serve the interests of the bourgeoisie and that it comes at the cost of the masses. Elections are all superficial as the rich can easily manipulate the process, they say. The hidden message is that only “benevolent” dictators (like the Chinese Communist Party) can take care of the underprivileged.

Now, the Taiwan election results mark a slap in the face to those spouting such rhetoric against democracy.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 1. 

Translation by Frank Chen

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Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou said he will resign as chairman of the ruling Kuomintang following the party’s crushing defeat in the local elections. Photo: Now News

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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