The election-eve shooting of Sean Lien (連勝文) notwithstanding, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) still lost the overall vote in the recent five special municipality elections by about 400,000 votes.
Some people believe the shooting benefited the KMT in the north, and harmed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the south, but this was not borne out by a Global Views Monthly magazine survey. Experience suggests the DPP generally does better in elections than pre-election opinion polls say, but in these elections the party performed slightly worse than the Global Views survey predicted. Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), the DPP candidate for Taipei City, got 5.5 percentage points less than forecast, while DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in Sinbei City, Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) in Greater Taichung, William Lai (賴清德) in Greater Tainan and Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) in Greater Kaohsiung fell behind by 3.7 points, 0.5 points, 2.1 points and 2.8 points respectively.
Beijing will claim, as the government here has done, that the Taiwanese have little to be unhappy about — this year’s economic growth rate is at a 20-year high, possibly due to economic integration with China after the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). During the election campaign, the DPP avoided the issue of independence. Could it be because it realized that discussing the current cross-strait situation would help the KMT? So, why did the latter still lose the popular vote?
The two main parties may well have kept quiet about cross-strait issues, but that didn’t stop it from being the dominant undercurrent in the elections.
The first reason for this is the high degree of cross-strait economic integration. This, coupled with the hollowing out of industry in Taiwan as manufacturers relocate to China, has meant unemployment and salary stagnation here, and bigwigs getting positions in China while small stores in Taiwan watch their business shrink. Consequently, the general public doesn’t see the actual benefits of this GDP growth.
From 1991 to 2007, income from labor as a percentage of GDP fell from 51.4 percent to 44 percent. A drop of this magnitude has not been seen anywhere else in the world. In the last three years, of the four Asian tigers, Taiwan and Hong Kong have trailed Singapore and South Korea in average GDP growth and rate of employment. Discernible in this undercurrent is a sea change in the political topography in Taiwan.
The second reason was a function of the Taiwanese collective consciousness. When the Asian Taekwondo Union’s (ATU) technical delegate Zhao Lei (趙磊), who happens to be from China, spoke out against Taiwanese athlete Yang Shu-chun (楊淑君) in the Asian Games in Guangzhou recently, the KMT thanked him, and this did considerable damage to the pan-blue camp.
In these elections we saw the KMT having to deal with yet another crisis: the significant weakening of local factions. In the past, even if the DPP won in county commissioner or mayoral elections, the KMT still had an overwhelming advantage in the county and city councilor elections.
Things were different this time around. In this election the votes were spread 38.6 percent to 35.34 percent, translating to 130 seats each. The KMT used to be able to get at least 60 percent of the village chief seats: This time it was able to secure less than a third of the seats and the overall vote. In another link in the local factions network — the urban and rural townships and the cities — these local factions have stayed away from the elections, leading to an unprecedented crisis in the KMT’s core support.
Some say that this is because President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has not taken the local factions seriously. Actually, the real culprit is social change. The KMT’s rural factions rely on the farmers’ associations and irrigation associations, while the urban ones look to associations affiliated to local communities and clans for their support, and these organizations are losing influence.
Finally, the deciding factor in the three municipalities the KMT did win was the Mainlander vote. Even this, however, has shown signs of dissipating, a process that promises to continue as Taiwan and China become more economically integrated and as trade links grow. Basically, we are seeing big changes in Taiwan’s political landscape. Getting people out to vote has gone from the hands of local factions made of the various trade associations, locally affiliated organizations, friendship associations or ethnic groups. We have arrived at the stage where people are voting on financial and social welfare policies, issues that affect them. The trend is not good for the KMT in terms of its prospects for the 2012 presidential elections. But that’s not to say it’s going to be plain sailing for the DPP, either.
In the 2008 presidential elections, the DPP trailed the KMT by 15 percent of the vote. Now it is 5 percent behind. It seems that the party’s efforts at making a “soft break” with former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) have already started to pay dividends.
It’s worth noting that this election was actually fought on two fronts. The KMT has failed to notice the social tectonic movements that are reshaping its core vote underneath its very feet, and it can no longer rely on a majority blue vote. It is mistaken if it thinks the “deep blue” vote is enough to win an election.
The DPP central command was reluctant to get caught up in this battle, but candidates loyal to Chen on the margins of the party took up the fight. Talk show host Lee Tao (李濤) and KMT Legislator Chiu Yi (邱毅) heavily criticized the Chen family, especially Chen’s son, Chen Chih-chung (陳致中), who won a seat as an independent city councilor for Greater Kaohiung. This criticism saw pre-election tensions rise to record highs. The result was that Lee and Chiu ended up being the biggest boost for Chen Chih-chung’s campaign, and he ended up surprising everyone with how well he did.
Unfortunately this caused a certain amount of in-fighting within the DPP’s ranks, helping the KMT nab Taichung. Indeed, it was only because of this that it was able to win the three municipalities. It also meant that the Chen loyalists managed to get a quarter of the DPP’s councilor seats, and remain a force to be reckoned with. This led Chen himself to remark that the approach of going on the offensive had been vindicated, and the party central command’s failure to do so was the reason the DPP only managed to win two municipalities.
When you compare the outcomes of the 2008 presidential elections and the recent municipality elections, it is quite clear who was right and who was wrong. That doesn’t mean that Chen and his loyalists are going to admit that freely, for it is not in their interests to do so. The DPP is going to have to find a way to avoid internal conflict.
Both the DPP and the KMT have to tackle some difficult issues. The next presidential election in 2012 is not all that far off and we will know very soon which party can learn best from its mistakes and move on into the future.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER
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