In the local elections on November 29, the governing party of Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT), lost by historic proportions. Though originally ruling the majority of the municipalities’ mayors and county magistrates, this year the KMT won only 6 out of the 22 local seats and gained just 40.7 percent of the vote. The biggest defeat came in the capitol Taipei where the KMT, which had governed Taipei City for 16 consecutive years, was defeated by the independent candidate, Ko Wen-je. Ko defeated the KMT candidate by 16.3 percentage points. This Taipei City mayor election marked the first time the KMT has lost without an internal party split.
Why did this happen? There are believed to be two main reasons: arrogance and a lack of understanding of people’s concerns from Taiwan’s leaders. Since being elected for a second term, President Ma Ying-jeou has imposed stronger pro-China policies, including signing the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with China. Ma also pressured legislators to ratify the agreement using his right, as party chief, to nominate candidates for Taiwan’s legislature. Under Ma, the KMT pushed the CSSTA without conducting an adequate evaluation of the political risks and without communicating with industries that would be affected by the agreement. People are also anxious over the possibility of China gaining political power over Taiwan power (possibly leading to unification) due to stronger economic integration. The government clearly was not receptive to the people’s concerns. Even after the Sunflower Movement, where half a million people marched on the street, the administration still has continued to push forward policies without public support, including bills regarding Free Economic Pilot Zones.
A tighter relationship with China simply does not benefit the ordinary people. Real income has declined and social inequality has worsened in the past decade while capitalists with good government relationships on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have thrived and now control the majority of wealth in Taiwan. The middle class in Taipei is disappearing as housing prices rise tremendously, thanks to the inflow of funds from Taiwanese capitalists in China. For instance, Ting Hsin International Group, the largest Taiwanese company in China’s food market, issued Taiwan depositary receipts to raise capital and invest in the real estate with banks’ support and the authorities’ consent. This is the very same company that sold “gutter oil” in Taiwan’s market for years, leading to the recent food scandal crisis in Taiwan this September. Ting Hsin allegedly avoided strict safety inspections due to their close connections with politicians. To date, no government official has taken responsibility to the food safety scandal.
During the elections, it was clear that the government was pulling out all the stops to help KMT candidates. In one incident, the KMT mobilized the central government’s administrative and judiciary branches to investigate tax and personal account records of the rival candidate for Taipei mayor, Ko Wen-je. Civilians are furious with this lack of separation between party and nation, and are fed up with polarized politics and dirty election tactics. This discontent, combined with an eagerness to change crony capitalism and pro-China policies, motivated civilians to vote against the KMT. The 2014 local elections were the last chance to punish the KMT government for not serving the public until legislative elections and the upcoming presidential election in 2016. The results were particularly obvious in Taipei City. Though Taipei City is traditionally a pro-KMT bastion, the KMT candidate Sean Lien lost by nearly 250,000 votes. This effect also spread to other cities as DPP and independent candidates gained an overwhelming victory at the end of the day.
Another important factor in this race was the youth of Taiwan. These local elections resulted in one of the highest youth voting rates, with a turnout rate of over 70 percent among people between 20-29 years old. The bump in youth participation stems from the Sunflower Movement, which inspired the younger generation to participate in public affairs and monitor the government. Young Taiwanese used social media to discuss political issues and shape public opinion, bypassing the traditional news sources that are now seen as less bipartisan due in part to financing from China. The long-standing political conflict in Taiwan drove the younger generation to come out and vote for change. The local elections were a way to warn the government of young people’s disapproval of the ruling KMT’s policies.
So what does all this mean for Taiwan’s future? For the KMT, the election results conveyed a strong message that people are highly skeptical about policies favoring businesses in China. The KMT’s core approach toward cross-strait relations — keeping the “status quo” — is also no longer convincing to people. For one, the foundation of the status quo, the 1992 Consensus, is becoming more ambiguous than ever as Beijing has long been recognized as the sole representation of China and the unique local identity of Taiwan is growing stronger. Moreover, there are concerns that the KMT’s pro-China policy is expediting political unification by making Taiwan overly reliant on mainland China economically without adequate measures to protect national security. To critics, the “status quo” is being broken by the KMT. To win back the people’s trust, the KMT has to adjust its economic and China policies, otherwise it will lose again in the 2016 presidential election. The local elections prove that Taiwan belongs to all people; politicians must seek to serve the public instead of certain interest groups.
While the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) picked up local election seats, the election result is not a victory to DPP. The DPP gained the majority of seats not because people believe in the DPP’s capabilities, but because of popular discontent toward the KMT. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, the DPP has to consider how its cross-strait policies will protect Taiwanese businesses’ interest in mainland Chinese markets while maintaining Taiwan’s sovereignty. Whether or not to proceed with FTA negotiations with Beijing will also be a dilemma for DPP as it juggles domestic opposition and the need to maintain cross-strait relations. The next mid-term election could see this year’s results turned on their head if the DPP wins the presidency but fails to appropriately address cross-strait issues.
Meanwhile, mainland China has to reconsider its policy of economic integration, as China’s strategy of using business to influence Taiwan’s people may have reached a bottleneck. Through the local elections, the Taiwanese people clearly demonstrated that they could “veto” unpopular pro-China policies. With the DPP, a pro-independence party, in good position to win the president’s seat in 2016, China may adopt a more aggressive strategy toward Taiwan — or it may choose to cooperate with the DPP. How the DPP, KMT and Taiwanese people will react to China and each other could determine the election results in 2016, and thus the state of cross-strait relations in the near future.
Ricky Yeh is an alumnus of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He formerly worked as an Economic Analyst at the Japan Center For International Finance.