The local elections have delivered a diverse set of results, but none that should surprise anyone who had paid attention to the candidates, issues and campaigns in the run-up to Saturday’s vote.
On the surface, the headlines write themselves. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) scored a stunning victory. It was a damning and comprehensive repudiation by voters of President Tsai Ying-wen’s (蔡英文) leadership of the nation, her failed cross-strait policies, her mismanagement of the economy and her betrayal of hard-working public employees who lost their pensions.
It proved that Taiwanese want to put economics first and politics second. They want to ditch the ideology and focus on building the economy for ordinary people’s livelihoods.
It confirmed that Taiwanese respect traditional family values and the sanctity of marriage as a strictly heterosexual institution. And in an age of climate change, Taiwanese resoundingly rejected a nuclear-free homeland by 2025.
Having experienced two years of the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) reckless radicalism, voters said “enough.” This was a vote for stability and rationality.
Except that it is largely nonsense.
It might sell well to international news outlets looking for a dramatic narrative that will earn them a higher proportion of clicks, likes and shares, but to take it at face value would both patronize Taiwanese and their democracy, and lazily serve the political interests most advantaged by the simplistic framing.
In contrast, the elections were complex, multilayered and somewhat paradoxical. I would like to focus on three aspects: turnout, candidate fatigue and voter disenchantment.
Early on election day there were numerous reports of long lines at polling stations and delays of one to two hours.
There was an initial misconception that the lines were the result of a surge in the youth vote, as 18-year-olds were allowed to vote in referendums for the first time.
In reality, Taiwan had never conducted an election in which there were simultaneously 10 referendums to vote on in addition to mayor, commissioner, city or county council seats, and borough wardens.
The long queues of people lining up to vote were less because the youth had turned up and more because an elderly voting demographic was taking more time to cast their votes.
In addition, the turnout figures not only suggest no youth vote surge, but indicate a fall comparative to the previous municipal elections in 2014.
Since the elderly are generally more consistent voters than the middle-aged or younger voting cohorts, the reality might have been the exact opposite of a youth surge.
If we take an average for the six special municipalities, we see a turnout of 64.78 percent and about 11,752,000 valid votes.
In 2014, the turnout for the entire electorate was 67.59 percent with 12,261,784 votes cast.
Initial calculations appear to suggest an average fall of about 2.8 percent in turnout for a loss of more than 500,000 valid votes.
It is in that context that people should analyze how the DPP went from 47.55 percent to 39.16 percent of the vote, while the KMT advanced from 40.70 percent to 48.79 percent.
The DPP lost 932,376 votes from 2014, while the KMT gained 1,112,199, essentially an 8 percent voter shift between the parties.
While turnout might have been depressed compared with 2014, judging by the six municipal cities, it might not have been evenly depressed across the nation.
For example, while Taipei saw a 5.09 percent drop in turnout from 2014, New Taipei City recorded a 0.81 percent rise. Taoyuan, Taichung and Tainan saw turnout decline 3.1 percent, 5.81 percent and 3.39 percent respectively, but Kaohsiung registered a rise of 6.19 percent.
The uneven nature of the depressed turnout points to a range of possible reasons. One of the most prominent of these might be candidate and administration fatigue.
In Kaohsiung, the DPP had already ruled for 20 years and its candidate, Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁), a youngish physician and legislator from the south, did not have sufficient charisma or vision for voters to justify giving the party another four years running the city.
A similar reason could also explain the DPP losing the commissioners in the long-held counties of Yilan and Yunlin.
In Taichung, the DPP’s Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) was ousted after only one term, losing by more than 14 percent of the vote in what many political scientists in Taiwan regard as a bellwether city. As Taichung goes, so goes the nation, and thus it did again.
Lin himself had won on the back of the KMT’s 13-year control of the city. For the KMT to win it back amid a nearly 6 percent fall in voter turnout was entirely predictable, especially considering how conservative Taichung generally votes — the city more than the old county — and the difficulty of the DPP to build up networks that can counter the long-standing ties the local KMT chapters have with businesses and temples in the area.
To win Taichung, the DPP needed a high turnout and the help of some financial scandal or health impediment dogging its opponent. Lin, on his own, could not bring out the vote and as a result lost a city that reverted to type.
This brings me to my third and final point. For a party that had been in power in some locations for more than a decade, the DPP was far too complacent about voter disenchantment.
In locations where it had scored surprising victories with better candidates in 2014, such as Hsinchu City, Taoyuan and Keelung, it held its ground to prevent a complete wipe out.
In Tainan, a city that is not normally close to contention for the KMT, the DPP squeaked through. That was one of the most shocking results of the night and a warning to the DPP.
It was understandable for Tsai to fall on her sword as party chairperson, less so Premier William Lai (賴清德) and Presidential Office Secretary-General Chen Chu (陳菊) to resign, but the new leadership of the party has two years to work out what voters want lest it sees its 70-odd seats in the Legislative Yuan reduced to a rump of 30 again.
The Tsai administration and the DPP’s legislative timidity have likely greatly angered many voters.
By choosing to chart a safe course of radical symbolism, but otherwise substantive centrism to prove its respectability and suitability for office, the DPP is falling into the same trap that bedevils the Democratic Party in the US, the Social Democratic Party in Germany, and French President Emanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In the face of the political aggression of their evangelical opponents, they choose to take the high road while begging their core supporters to give them more time to eventually get around to the progressive platform they have promised, all the while playing diplomatic niceties with the most despicable and persistent contraveners of progressive values around the world.
Instead of passing changes to the Civil Code to cement same-sex marriage rights into law as the Council of Grand Justices had mandated, Tsai and the DPP sat on their hands waiting for “public consensus” without leading and inspiring such a consensus to coalesce around a position they have forcefully and unapologetically argued for.
That there even could be a referendum on the issue was because of the political space opened up by the DPP’s abrogation of duty.
The despairing death from suicide of a young gay person the day after the referendum is on the DPP’s hands.
The cold, strategic timidity is why it would not abolish the death penalty or end the war on drugs or do anything else that might suggest it is actually progressive in any way but name.
It is perhaps why the New Power Party had another good election, cementing its position as a solid third party in Taiwanese politics.
If Tsai wants to win a second term, she needs to realize that the economy will never be good again to the point that Taiwanese stop complaining about it, that China will never let the DPP enjoy productive cross-strait relations, and that voters will choose a Taiwanese “Trump” like Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) if they are bored and frustrated enough.
Taiwanese will not wait around for Tsai and her party to be bold and determined one week before the next elections.
Tsai should look to her predecessor, former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who knew it was better to be disliked but respected for appearing strong, rather than liked but disrespected for appearing weak.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident of Taiwan.
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