Calm reigns at last as Taiwanese mull over the results of Saturday’s hotly contested nine-in-one elections. In view of the disappointing outcome for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) announced her resignation as DPP chairperson, but she asked Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) to stay on after he also offered his resignation.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) promised that his party would nominate a candidate who would have a chance of winning the 2024 presidential election and boost the party’s prospects for winning a majority in the legislature.
Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) — who is chairman of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which for the first time took part in local elections — said the results showed that the party needs more time to establish itself at the local level.
Democracy has become a normal facet of everyday life in Taiwan. The relatively low turnout in the local elections shows that many people did not see them as very important, because they did not involve a potential handover of power at the central government level.
Before the Central Election Commission provides detailed data on the voter turnout, it can at least be said that the election results are a setback for the DPP, while the loose alliance of opposition forces, including the KMT, TPP, their allied parties and independent candidates, have gained the upper hand.
Looking at previous local elections, which are held every four years, provides insight into this year’s results.
In 2014, the effect of the Sunflower movement, which took place earlier that year, led to the DPP winning the mayorship in four special municipalities and six county commissioner seats, as well as three mayorships in cities that are not special municipalties (Keelung, Hsinchu and Chiayi), while Ko, then an independent candidate who was on friendly terms with the DPP, won the mayoral race in Taipei.
Four years later, the DPP lost ground, partly due to a surge in support for then-KMT Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜). This left the DPP with two municipal mayors, four county commissioners, and the mayors in Keelung and Hsinchu.
However, two years after being elected Kaohsiung mayor, Han was unseated by a recall vote, after which a by-election was held and Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) of the DPP became mayor, resulting in the DPP governing three special municipalities.
In this year’s elections, the DPP held on to the mayorship of Kaohsiung, but lost Taoyuan, setting it back to two mayors in special municipalities, and it also failed to retain the mayorships of Keelung and Hsinchu.
In the four national referendums that were held at the end of last year, all four proposals — which were endorsed by the KMT, but opposed by the DPP — were voted down, even though in Taoyuan the “yes” votes outnumbered the “no” votes on all four proposals. This was a warning sign of what might happen in the city.
Earlier this year, Tsai endorsed then-Hsinchu mayor Lin Chih-chien (林智堅) as the DPP’s candidate to succeed outgoing Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wen-tsan (鄭文燦), also of the DPP.
However, Lin was immediately confronted with allegations of plagiarism in his master’s thesis. He withdrew from the race and was hurriedly replaced by DPP Legislator Cheng Yun-peng (鄭運鵬).
It now appears that this flip-flop eroded the DPP’s electoral support not only in Taoyuan, but also in neighboring Hsinchu.
These being local elections, the DPP’s slogan of “resisting China and protecting Taiwan” did not seem to resonate with voters, especially in electoral districts where the voter structure is stable.
It remains to be seen how the international community will interpret this phenomenon.
The opposition camp, for its part, resorted to smearing the government’s disease prevention measures and its internationally acclaimed achievements in fighting COVID-19.
However, when faced with allegations of corruption involving Yilan County Commissioner Lin Zi-miao (林姿妙) of the KMT and TPP Hsinchu mayoral candidate Ann Kao (高虹安), their respective parties dismissed the allegations as political witch hunts.
It is true that candidates in any election will use whatever tricks they can muster, but it is puzzling that the DPP, which often launches fierce political attacks when it is in opposition, becomes weak and ineffective when it is in power.
Despite having more than half the seats in the legislature, DPP legislators have shown little ability to defend the DPP government, and no longer seem capable of convincing voters about what is right and what is wrong.
The DPP’s newly redrawn local government territory is even shakier than it was in 2008, despite the bright spots of Chen Guang-fu (陳光復) having been voted back into his previous post as Penghu County commissioner and Cheng Chao-fang’s (鄭朝方) election as mayor of Jhubei City (竹北), the seat of the Hsinchu County government.
A survey on support for political parties conducted in June showed the DPP as having 31.1 percent support, well ahead of the KMT, which was at 14 percent, and the TPP at 7.8 percent.
This situation should have been favorable to the DPP, but it did not turn out that way. Why was there such a big difference between that poll and the local election results?
It might be because the KMT’s local organization and mobilization are still stronger than the DPP’s, while the DPP still tends to neglect its local operations and prefers to appeal to high-level political ideas.
Local elections have more to do with daily life, so abstract political ideas do little to mobilize support.
Besides, opposition parties’ election strategies are more aggressive than they used to be, and they use hatred to mobilize and replace their own nominees when others are seen as better positioned to win.
The DPP, which was still fighting a “conventional war,” seems to have been caught off guard by its opponents’ less conventional tactics. The opposition parties played a more serious game than the ruling party.
Tsai is more than halfway through her second presidential term, and the question of who will succeed her might be breeding internal conflict in the pan-green camp that detracted from the DPP’s united “war effort.”
The opposition KMT-led pan-blue and the TPP-led white camps are focused on the 2024 presidential and legislative elections. The two camps have the common desire to unseat the DPP, so maximizing the DPP’s electoral losses was in the KMT’s and TPP’s interest.
However, if Chu is planning to run for president, he needs to prevent the emergence of an alternative “consensus leader” in the pan-blue camp — one who, like himself, can transcend divisions between the KMT’s factions.
If Ko is planning to run as well, he needs to make sure that there is still room for cooperation between the pan-blue and white camps.
Chu and Ko both made gains in the local elections, but the reversal of fortunes that took place between 2018 and 2020 shows that there is no inevitable relation between this year’s local elections, and the presidential and legislative elections of 2024.
Besides, the suspicions about corruption involving Lin and Kao have yet to go through judicial procedures, so it is by no means certain that being elected will get them and their parties off the hook.
The direction of Taiwan’s democratic path is set, but there are still different views as to how fast the nation should proceed along it.
The referendum proposal to amend the Constitution to lower the voting age to 18, which was voted upon at the same time as the local elections, would have allowed democracy to deepen its roots. Notably, Taiwan is a rapidly aging society, so a vote to extend full citizenship rights to 18-year-olds would have been a form of generational justice. The downward extension of these rights would promote a policy environment conducive to the younger generation regarding employment, income and childbirth. It would have helped prevent Taiwan from tilting too far toward social welfare, which is likely to increase the younger generation’s burden of support for the elderly.
However, the number of “yes” votes did not reach the required threshold, despite outnumbering the “no” votes.
This shows that aiming demotivating propaganda at the supporters of those who openly proclaimed their support for full citizenship rights for 18-year-olds resulted in 410,000 young people having to wait a few more years before they gain those rights.
As a result, the voices of the younger generation are not available to balance Taiwan’s increasingly aging society.
Will generational conflict lead to more problems? It is something to worry about.
What is Taiwan? A model of democratic epidemic control. A bellwether of democracy in the Indo-Pacific region. A dependable player in supply chains.
Those who believe in these Taiwanese successes might be anxious about the results of the local elections, but they should not and need not be depressed.
From another perspective, KMT candidate Chiang Wan-an’s (蔣萬安) defeat of Vivian Huang (黃珊珊) in the Taipei mayoral election is a repudiation of Huang’s backer Ko, whose governance of Taipei compares poorly with those of other municipal mayors.
The KMT’s electoral victory might sharpen contradictions between the party’s fundamentalist and local factions.
These factors mean that the 2024 elections are still an unknown quantity.
Taiwan’s COVID-19 prevention success has not won the affirmation of those who live in security and freedom thanks, in part at least, to the government’s efforts.
The election results have shown the international community how unpredictable Taiwan’s lively democracy can be. If those who did not vote on Saturday find that the results do not measure up to their assumed expectations, hopefully they will be more inclined to use their precious votes in 2024.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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