Taiwan’s ruling KMT may have won three out of five mayoral races at the weekend, but the victory is sounding a little hollow.
According to results from the island’s Central Election Commission, the KMT triumphed in Taipei, Sinbei city, and Taichung. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party, meanwhile, secured wins in the southern cities of Kaohsiung and Tainan.
With both parties having suggested prior to the polls that three wins for either could be considered ‘overall’ victory, surely the KMT has plenty to celebrate? Not necessarily.
Scratch a little beneath the surface and the picture doesn’t look quite so rosy for the KMT. According to the commission’s latest results, the DPP's overall share of the vote for the five contests was 49.9 percent, compared with 44.5 percent for the KMT. The DPP’s share—which saw it secure an about 400,000 majority in the popular vote—is a marked increase from the 43 percent it received in the same five contests in 2008.
According to J. Michael Cole, deputy news editor at the Taipei Times, some have argued that this drop in support for the KMT is because of scepticism over President Ma Ying-jeou’s cross-strait policies. ‘But we have to be careful when reaching that conclusion, as these were local elections, and voters tended to focus on the "what can your candidate do for me locally" rather than whether Ma should talk politics with Hu Jintao,’ Cole told me.
So, is all politics completely local? Cole told me that he believes recent opinion polls still offer some useful insights into the 2012 presidential race.
‘What’s perhaps more indicative of what could happen in 2012 is the fact that Ma's approval ratings continue to drop and now lag behind those of the DPP's Tsai Ing-wen,’ he said. ‘Those ratings, rather than solely reflecting local considerations, also take into account public perceptions of Ma's cross-strait policies, which are likely to play no small role in the 2012 campaign and its outcome.’
Cole also raised the interesting point that Beijing’s response to the latest results could have an interesting impact on the 2012 race, depending on whether it responds with ‘carrots or sticks.’
‘As 2012 approaches, Beijing is expected to want to start talking politics with the Ma administration. If it sees reluctance on Ma's part to do so, it could react angrily, which is likely to hurt Ma and force Taiwanese to rally round the flag. This would compound nationalism and help the DPP,’ Cole said.
‘Conversely, Beijing could swallow its pride, show itself more patient than perhaps it would like to, and give Ma a whole new package of sweeteners, which could help get him re-elected and buy time —that is, four more years of a Ma presidency.’
Cole warned that the KMT could also face some problems on the domestic front, noting that in Greater Taichung, KMT candidate Jason Hu was barely re-elected in what should be a party stronghold, despite the DPP candidate having only been parachuted in six months prior to the election.
But ultimately, Cole said he believes China will loom largest over the election. ‘In a nutshell, I think Ma's greatest challenge will be selling his China policy to the Taiwanese electorate and somehow convincing Beijing to be patient and to avoid creating unnecessary pitfalls…or pushing too hard for talks that touch on sovereignty and which could therefore backfire’.