The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) suffered a landslide defeat in the elections on Saturday last week, prompting the resignation of Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) and leaving the party gravely weakened before the presidential election in 2016.
Of 22 special municipalities, counties and cities, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) gained an unprecedented 13 mayoral seats, up from six the previous year, while DPP-backed independent candidate and now mayor-elect Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) won the Taipei election.
The landslide electoral gains by the opposition surprised observers and are bound to alter the balance of power in Taiwan’s politics and also cross-strait relations.
The KMT’s defeat in traditional strongholds such as Taipei and Greater Taichung is a vote of no confidence for President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration and its failure on economic issues, despite building stronger economic ties with China. The electoral results show that socioeconomic issues such as stagnant wages and income inequality, instead of cross-strait relations, have become the dominant concerns for Taiwanese. Since first elected in 2008, Ma has made improving Taiwan’s relationship with China a primary objective.
Over the past six years, the two sides have concluded about 21 agreements, including the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2010. The nine-in-one elections followed the Sunflower movement in March and April that saw protesters occupy the main chamber of the Legislative Yuan to resist the passage of the cross-strait service trade agreement.
Many Taiwanese have become suspicious of — if not hostile to — China because of widespread concerns that the rewards of liberalized 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.
The electoral pivot in Taiwan underscores worldwide attention and debate over wealth and income inequality. The income gap in Taiwan has widened in the past decade, reflecting an imbalance in wealth accumulation and aggravating the prevalent dissatisfaction and insecurity of young people.
Generally speaking, the government should consider further reforming public goods like the education system, health insurance, social welfare, public infrastructure and income and capital gains tax structures to compensate for the hereditary differences in wealth and mobility and ensure more equal opportunities.
In particular, enabling educational opportunities through more holistic admissions mechanisms, enhancing education in public schools and rural areas, and increasing subsidies for disadvantaged families can promote greater long-term equality, social motivation, and national achievement.
With its increased popularity, the DPP should abandon its boycott position and assume a more constructive role in leading and monitoring cross-strait affairs.
Only pushing for greater economic liberalization with China will realistically create the preconditions for Taiwan’s participation in proposed regional economic partnerships like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP).
As such, the DPP should proactively support in the legislature the review and approval of the supervisory mechanism for cross-strait agreements and the service trade pact.
It should also agree to the signing of the trade in goods agreement with China and advocate for its earliest passage. This would help spur an increase in trade and investment making Taiwan more effective against competitors in similar export markets such as South Korea.
China’s efforts to convince the Taiwanese to support its goal of eventual unification by economic leverage have not achieved their envisioned effects.
Beijing will have to adapt to Taiwan’s new shift in public opinion and demographics and decide whether additional concessions are necessary to pursue meaningful relations with the DPP, which continues to back a pro-independence stance.
On the other hand, the KMT needs to address the reason young people have difficulty identifying with the party’s policies and approach to liberalization. Ma, disconnected from the public and now in his second and final term as president, will have a reduced mandate to engage in further economic negotiations or initiate political dialogue across the Taiwan Strait.
DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is a likely second-time candidate and frontrunner for the presidency in 2016. No matter who runs, Taiwan needs a president who has the resolve to overcome traditional partisan divisions, establish consensus and protect justice. Such a leader must be able to preserve and strengthen the peaceful development of cross-strait relations while pursuing deeper strategic cooperation with the US.
Most certainly, this would demand presenting and maintaining a more viable cross-strait framework that accounts for different interpretations of the so-called “one China” policy and political “status quo” so as to appeal to a broader range of voters without alienating core supporters.
Alfred Tsai is a student of economics and political science at Columbia University.
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