South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Jonathan Sullivan says the DPP’s resounding success at local elections has strengthened its momentum for the 2016 presidential poll, while the race to succeed Ma heats up at the KMT
It is normal practice for Taiwan, but it bears repeating. At a time when students and activists in Hong Kong are fighting for the right to some semblance of democratic competition, millions of Taiwanese participated in a democratic exercise unprecedented in scale on Saturday. The “nine-in-one” island-wide local elections that saw over 11,000 public offices up for grabs went off smoothly and without the merest hint of violence.
The only barricades and barbed wire on show in Taiwan on Saturday were outside Kuomintang headquarters, in anticipation of a backlash from the party’s own supporters. The last time the KMT performed so poorly – Lien Chan’s feeble third place in the 2000 presidential election – supporters surrounded the building demanding that heads roll. As the final results came in on a day of historic losses for the ruling party, President Ma Ying-jeou led top KMT figures in apologising.
Before the dust had settled on a mid-term massacre as humbling as the one suffered by US President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party three weeks earlier, Premier Jiang Yi-huah and KMT secretary general Tseng Yung-chuan had fallen on their swords. Later, Ma said he would relinquish his position as KMT chairman. With presidential and legislative elections scheduled for just over a year’s time, KMT politicians and supporters are counting the days until the toxic Ma will be constitutionally obliged to stand down after his two terms as president.
The KMT’s landslide losses are the latest blow to an administration bedevilled by social protests and a deeply unpopular economic agreement with mainland China that is languishing in parliament. It gives the initiative to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and has turned the island’s electoral geography on its head.
In taking central and northern conurbations, DPP support is no longer restricted to the southern hotbed of Taiwanese nationalism. Having been bypassed by the civic movements that coalesced under the Sunflower banner, it appears that the DPP has managed to harness widespread disillusionment with the KMT. In 2010, the DPP won six of the 22 mayoral and commissioner contests. On Saturday, they more than doubled that tally.
In the marquee contest for Taipei city mayor, independent candidate Ko Wen-je captured the post-Sunflower zeitgeist in his crusade against establishment “politics as usual”, defeating the KMT’s Sean Lien by a morale-sapping 17 points. Taipei is a KMT bastion, but as a “princeling”, with all the negative resonances that being “KMT royalty” holds in a society where regular people are struggling and the KMT’s promised economic dividends haven’t materialised, it was essential that Lien inoculated himself against accusations of privilege and nepotism. He failed to do so, and Ko stood out with his no-nonsense humility and unpractised awkwardness. The KMT threw the kitchen sink at Ko, but none of the smears stuck. In their desperation, the Lien campaign made damaging mistakes – like planting friendly questions at the televised debate – and failed utterly to connect Lien with voters.
Overall, the KMT won only one out of six special municipalities. Even then, the incumbent in New Taipei City, 2016 presidential hopeful Eric Chu Li-luan, squeaked home. Incumbent DPP mayors in the southern municipalities of Tainan and Kaohsiung were re-elected with 73 per cent and 68 per cent of the vote. In the new special municipality of Taoyuan, a northern commuter city, KMT candidate John Wu had led in pre-election polls by as much as 20 points. He lost by 3 per cent.
In the northern port city of Keelung, the KMT candidate registered just 28 per cent of the vote. And in central Taichung, a crucial battleground for 2016 that had been solidly KMT for many years, the DPP candidate comfortably unseated an incumbent seeking a fourth consecutive term. Overall, the KMT won just six of the 22 mayoral and commissioner contests, its worst showing since the previous benchmark of futility: the eight seats it won in equivalent elections in 1997.
Ma’s legacy will take another hit from this electoral performance. While his détente policies towards Beijing have delivered frequently touted practical agreements across a number of sectors, and his contribution to the tenor of cross-strait relations has been applauded in Beijing and Washington, the results of his policies in Taiwan have been mixed.
An aloof and haughty personal modus operandi has alienated voters and KMT colleagues alike. The high expectations that Ma had for a further economic deal with Beijing and a possible meeting with President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit were thwarted. In the remainder of his tenure, Ma’s capacity to achieve much of his policy agenda, already weakened by public approval ratings that seldom go above 20 per cent, is highly constrained. His major remaining contribution to the KMT will be to minimise the damage he does to the party’s chances for 2016.
From the ashes of Saturday’s disaster, the race to succeed Ma has clarified somewhat. While Sean Lien can put his presidential aspirations on hold, by winning ugly amid the carnage, Eric Chu possibly places himself ahead of the veteran Wu Den-yih and retiring Taipei mayor, Hau Lung-bin, another princeling.
The DPP, meanwhile, is in a state of euphoric surprise, and overseeing this performance strengthens party chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen’s chances of standing for the presidency again in 2016. The momentum is clearly with the DPP, although history shows that local elections used to register discontent can be a different proposition to national elections.
Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor and deputy director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham