KMT defeat in local elections raises question of 2016

December 16, 2014 10:58
Taiwan's 2016 presidential election may be Tsai Ing-wen's to lose. Photo: Bloomberg

The rout of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party in the Nov. 29 local elections changed Taiwan’s political landscape overnight, making the DPP candidate for president in 2016 the odds-on favorite and possibly marking a change in cross-strait relations.

While each of the “nine-in-one” elections was a local race, cumulatively they constituted a referendum on the performance of Ma Ying-jeou's presidency.

Ma was keenly aware of this, immediately issuing a public apology, promising reforms and giving up the chairmanship of the KMT.

Ma’s cross-strait policy – the most important achievement of his last six years – was not a campaign issue.

But Beijing is no doubt aware that if Ma’s political platform as a whole is being rejected by the electorate, it may be difficult to separate this baby from the bath water.

The Chinese government quickly issued a cautionary note.

A spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office of China’s State Council asserted: “We have noticed the results of the election. We hope compatriots across the strait will cherish hard-won fruits of cross-strait relations and jointly safeguard and continue to push forward peaceful development of cross-strait relations.”

This was an indication of the mainland’s recognition that a new age may be dawning in Taiwan, and that it may have to deal with a DPP administration in 2016.

For its part, the DPP was equally cautious. Joseph Wu, the party's secretary-general, said cross-strait relations were not debated in the campaign, and so the election should not be seen as a repudiation of Ma’s cross-strait policies.

Significantly, Wu flew to Washington the day after the election to bring this message to the American media and to US politicians.

This no doubt was to pre-empt any move by the Barack Obama administration to make things difficult for the DPP in the 2016 presidential election.

The DPP's chairman, Tsai Ing-wen, no doubt remembers what happened during the last election, when she flew to Washington to explain her cross-strait policy.

Subsequently, an unidentified US official told the Financial Times that the Obama administration had “distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years”.

Washington is happy with Ma’s willingness to cooperate with the mainland on trade and economic issues under the slogan “no unification, no independence and no war”.

While it is unlikely that Tsai will adopt the aggressive pro-independence policy of former president Chen Shui-bian, it is not clear exactly what her stance will be and whether China will be willing to work with her administration.

When Taiwan began to democratize in the 1990s, the KMT had a key advantage over the DPP: it had a near monopoly on administrative experience, stemming from Taiwan’s long decades as a one-party state.

But the DPP is now in a much better position to form a government.

In fact, where the DPP has an obvious presidential candidate in Tsai, there is no obvious standard bearer on the KMT side.

Moreover, support of the DPP, with its stronghold in the south, has been creeping north with every election. This time, the KMT even lost the capital, Taipei, deep in its own heartland.

There, the KMT candidate, Sean Lien, son of a former vice-president, suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a neophyte, Ke Wen-je, a doctor who ran as an independent with DPP support.

Amid a flood of KMT defeats, its lone victory was in New Taipei City, where Eric Chu, a former vice-premier, managed to scrape through by an extremely thin margin.

Today, he is the only star left in the KMT firmament. In fact, Chu is the only candidate to announce he will run for party chairman on Jan. 17.

He told the press that, as party chairman, he would “stand on the public’s side without giving any consideration to whatever position the Presidential Office and the Executive Yuan hold on the issue”.

That may be fine if the KMT is the opposition party. But it could mean that in the remaining 13 months of the Ma presidency, Chu could in effect oppose his own party on major issues.

If Chu does run for president as the KMT candidate, his opponent will be Tsai, whom he defeated four years ago when both ran to become the first mayor of New Taipei.

But he will know that, this time, the odds are likely to be very different.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.