Written by Nathan Batto
Taiwanese voters delivered a harsh rebuke to President Tsai Ing-wen and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in last week’s local elections. The DPP had won 13 of the 22 cities and counties in 2014, accounting for 62% of Taiwan’s population. The Kuomingtang (KMT) had only won 6 cities and counties, covering 25% of the population. This year, those numbers were reversed. The DPP could only hold 6 cities and counties, encompassing 27% of the population, while the KMT won 15, with 62% of the population. There was a similar reversal in votes. In 2014, DPP candidates won about 840,000 more votes than KMT candidates; this year, KMT candidates outpolled DPP candidates by over 1.2 million votes.
The DPP’s most stunning loss came in Kaohsiung City, which it had not lost in 20 years. Yet the DPP not only lost Kaohsiung, the race wasn’t particularly close. The KMT candidate won by 9.1%. In the other major deep green city, Tainan City, 29.6% of voters cast a protest vote for one of the minor candidates, holding the winning DPP candidate to a mere 38.0%. If the DPP did poorly in its strongholds, it also suffered heavy losses in the traditional bellwether districts. The partisan balances in Taichung and New Taipei Cities are roughly similar to the overall national pattern, so if you can win Taichung and New Taipei, you will probably win all of Taiwan. The DPP was blown out in both races, losing by 14.2% in Taichung and 14.3% in New Taipei. Incumbents usually win their re-election bids, but this year only four of the DPP’s nine incumbents were able to win re-election. The only bright spots for the DPP came in three northern cities, where DPP incumbents won re-election in Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Keelung Cities. However, these were the outliers in a national wave of bad news. While it is tempting to explain away each outcome as an independent confluence of the local factors and issues that dominated the campaign discourses, the overall trend is too broad and too deep to attribute to idiosyncratic factors such as unequal regional economic development or poor air quality.
This election was more of a rejection of the DPP than a vote of confidence in the KMT. While the DPP lost votes nearly everywhere, voters did not uniformly turn to the KMT. In several cities and counties, voters instead opted for third-party or independent candidates. The most notable example of this came in Taipei City. In 2014, the DPP had cooperated with independent Ko Wen-je, and they had held the inept KMT nominee Sean Lien to a 40.8%, a humiliating result in such a traditionally strong KMT area. This year the DPP broke with Ko, creating a three-way race and a clear opportunity for the KMT to seize the capitol back. Instead, Ko won a razor-thin 3000 vote victory by once again holding the KMT to the same 40.8%. Taipei was not alone; third-party candidates also garnered at least 15% of the vote in Tainan City, Hsinchu County, Hsinchu City, Chiayi County, Chiayi City, and Penghu County.
In the wake of these results, both major parties face leadership struggles over the coming months. For the DPP, following such a demonstrably unpopular leadership into the 2020 election would simply be political suicide. On election night, President Tsai announced her resignation as DPP party chair. Other top DPP figures, including Premier William Lai and Presidential Office Secretary General Chen Ju have also offered to resign, though as of now they remain in office. However, this leadership struggle is ongoing, and more heads will probably roll. It is possible that Tsai will decline to seek re-election as president, or, if she does seek re-election, that she will face an intense nomination fight. There is plenty of blame to go around in the DPP, and the party will spend the next few months figuring out where to assign it.
One might expect things to be clearer for the victorious KMT, but it also faces questions about its leadership. Party chair Wu Den-yi had already been weakened by signals from Beijing that they do not consider him a suitable partner. During the last week of the campaign, Wu committed a damaging verbal gaffe, and several KMT figures hastily tried to distance themselves from him. If Wu contests the KMT presidential nomination, he will almost certainly be challenged by outgoing New Taipei mayor Eric Chu, and perhaps also by others such as former premier Chang Shan-cheng. Nonetheless, the KMT’s hopes for 2020 received a major boost from this year’s election results, and it will spend the next year expecting to take back power.
This was the first general election since the Referendum Law was amended in December 2017 to lower the thresholds for proposal and passage. In previous years, Taiwan had never had more than two referenda at once; this year there were ten. The added burden nearly overwhelmed the election administration system. Since voters took a long time to read and mark all ten referenda, some of which had very confusing wording, the lines at polling stations got longer and longer. Waits of two hours were not uncommon. This effectively disenfranchised a substantial number of voters, since some people had jobs, family obligations, or simply did not want to wait so long. A very high share of the 300,000 poll workers were unable to vote since they only had short breaks or, in the hectic situation, did not take any break at all. Many polling stations had to be kept open, some as much as three hours, to allow all the people in line to vote. Taiwanese election results are usually clear by 6:00 or 7:00pm, but, because of the added burden of the referenda, the outcome of the Taipei mayoral race was uncertain until nearly 3:00am. The system did not collapse, and the results were eventually counted in a transparent and accurate manner. Taiwanese election administration is usually among the best in the world, but this was the worst administered general election in the democratic era.
None of the ten referenda met the previous threshold for passage, but with the new, lower threshold, seven passed. Five of referenda dealt with marriage equality. In May 2017, the Council of Grand Justices ruled that some sort of framework must be passed within two years to allow for gay marriage. The most important question was whether this would be achieved by amending (or reinterpreting) the existing Civil Code or by passing a special law to codify some legal arrangement that might not include all the status, benefits, and privileges of regular marriage. The referenda revealed far lower support for marriage equality than many supporters expected, and the cabinet has already reacted by announcing it will submit a special law to the legislature. However, the emboldened anti-marriage equality movement has announced that they are now against the special law that they just demanded. Now, they do not want any legal recognition of gay marriages. Given the ruling by the Grand Justices, this demand will not be satisfied. However, the referenda have given the anti-marriage equality movement evidence and energy to continue their fight into the future. The new referendum law has been a disaster for the cause of marriage equality, which is ironic since the New Power Party, for whom full marriage equality is a core value, was the loudest voice demanding the lower referendum thresholds.
Nathan Batto is an Assistant Research Fellow at the Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica and Jointly Appointed Assistant Research Fellow at the Election Study Center, National Chengchi University. Image Credit: Flickr/ PIN LIN