22 March 2019
People queue to cast their votes at a polling station in local elections and a referendum on same-sex marriage, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan on Nov. 24. The opposition KMT pulled off a major upset in a mayoral contest in the city. Photo: Reuters
People queue to cast their votes at a polling station in local elections and a referendum on same-sex marriage, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan on Nov. 24. The opposition KMT pulled off a major upset in a mayoral contest in the city. Photo: Reuters

Taiwan polls: Why the KMT can’t afford to be smug after its win

Taiwan’s so-called nine-in-one local elections last Saturday ended in a catastrophic defeat for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), with the counties and cities under its control now standing at just 6, compared to 13 previously.

In particular, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) pulled off a major upset in the key mayoral contest in the southwestern city of Kaohsiung, a traditional DPP stronghold, as its candidate Han Kuo-yu defeated his DPP rival Chen Chi-mai by a comfortable margin of some 150,000 votes.

Han was barely known to the people of Kaohsiung 14 months ago when he kicked off his campaign. However, it didn’t take long for him to quickly rise to prominence and become a sensation among local voters.

Many have attributed Han’s stunning victory and his ability to win the hearts and minds of the Kaohsiung people within such a relatively short period of time to his common touch and his election pledges of eradicating bipartisan politics and staying focused on economic development.

In fact even Han himself acknowledged that he would never have won had it not been for the livelihood issues that the people of Kaohsiung were subjected under DPP rule.

Overall, Taiwan’s local election results mean that the people have severely punished President Tsai Ing-wen and the ruling DPP this time with their votes, as the administration was perceived to have failed to deliver anything after two years in office.

One important key to Han’s victory in Kaohsiung is probably the fact that he was able to fully gauge the strength of the widespread tiredness among the Taiwanese voters of the intense “blue-green” partisanship in the island’s politics.

Likewise, the sitting mayor of Taipei Ko Wen-je, more commonly known to his supporters as “Ko-P”, also managed to get re-elected this time with his election pledges of “transcending blue and green” and getting down to real issues.

Even though Ko’s KMT rival Ting Shou-chung is expected to file a lawsuit in a bid to get the election outcome ruled invalid, and it remains to be seen how the episode would play out, one thing is beyond dispute: like Ko believed, Taiwanese voters are desperately looking forward to a “third political force” that can transcend ideological races including partisan differences as well as ethnic group tensions.

Meanwhile, in our view, while the election results on Saturday were definitely a wake-up call for Tsai and the DPP, both of whom must deeply reflect on their mistakes to avoid being kicked out of office in the 2020 presidential election, there is also a hidden warning for the KMT leadership despite the party’s stunning victory.

It is because, as far as Han is concerned, he has become very popular and eventually managed to conquer Kaohsiung largely because he is considered an “atypical KMT candidate” in the public eye, which suggests that a typical KMT candidate has limited popularity among the Taiwanese voters.

If the KMT lets victory go to its head and rejects internal reforms, its prospects in the 2020 presidential election aren’t necessarily promising.

Another thing noteworthy about the elections is that while the Taiwanese people are getting increasingly fed up with “blue-green” partisanship, they are equally dismayed at Beijing’s cheap shots and provocative remarks on cross-strait relations.

As such, it would be in Beijing’s best interests to stop stirring up controversies, and put more emphasis on economic cooperation and less on anti-independence as well as pro-reunification, so as to allow cities and counties like Kaohsiung to focus their energy on “making big bucks”.

In the run-up to the weekend elections, Beijing had been keeping a low-profile and refraining from making any comment on the race in an apparent effort to avoid firing up the support base of the DPP.

However, after the elections, the spokesperson of the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, Ma Xiaoguang, immediately weighed in on the matter in high-profile manner.

In a statement, Ma said, among other things, Taiwanese voters’ rejection of the referendum on Saturday over whether the island should take part in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as “Taiwan” instead of “Chinese Taipei” is an unmistakable indication that any attempt to push for Taiwan’s independence is doomed to fail.

In our opinion, whether the Taiwanese people were voting “yes” or “no” to the referendum doesn’t necessarily relate to the reunification issue.

Besides, it would be unwise for Beijing to jump to the conclusion that the DPP’s defeat in the elections means the Taiwanese people are in favor of reunification, and start mounting an all-out offensive to force the issue at this point, because it will definitely backfire.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 26

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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