Written by Bruce Jacobs.
The dramatic DPP defeat in the last local elections has surprised everyone on both sides of politics. The elections were very much a chance for the electorate to evaluate the current DPP central government and the voters found the government wanting.
The massive KMT defeats in the local elections in 2014 and the presidential and legislative elections of 2016 have not been reversed because the KMT has failed to reform. It has failed to determine how it wishes to face the voters and it did not have a unified team of candidates pushing particular programs. Rather, it had disparate candidates who emphasized local concerns and did not present any strong ideas on such issues as national identity.
Young voters, who overwhelmingly identify as “Taiwanese” and “not Chinese,” voted for the KMT on such issues as economic growth and many voters also cast ballots for change. Thus, in Kaohsiung, where the DPP had ruled for 20 years, the KMT won an excellent victory despite the quirkiness of the Han Kuo-yu, the KMT mayoral candidate. From experience in Taiwan and other democracies, we find voters frequently turn out governments after twenty consecutive years in office.
The only other alternative to the KMT and the DPP is the New Power Party, which has still not developed sufficiently to be a proper opposition. Thus, the elections were a poll on how the DPP central government is performing. The government has become so cautious that it appears paralyzed. Even in a relative achievement like the Labour Standards Act, the government failed by giving the bill a title that made no sense in Chinese. This suggests an inability to implement basic aspects of key reform legislation.
The government could also have used the Constitutional Court’s ruling that same-sex marriage does not conflict with the Constitution and then easily passed a bill in the Legislature, which it controls with a substantial majority. Instead, the government got frightened by the threats of the Presbyterian Church, which would not have voted KMT anyway and which went against the standpoint of the international Presbyterian Church.
Similarly, the government was afraid of threats from evangelicals, many of whom would not have voted for the DPP in any event. And, Christians account for only 5-6 per cent of the electorate in any case. In succumbing to the threats of the churches, the government lost the support of many young voters who cast their ballots for the KMT.
Another failure was the execution of a prisoner. It is true that many people in Taiwan believe the death penalty stops murders, but no one in government or in the NGO community has explained that this is simply not true. The government failed to explain to Taiwan’s population that jurisdictions without the death penalty have lower murder rates than places which do have the death penalty. But, again, young voters who support human rights voted for the KMT to express dissatisfaction with the central government’s actions.
Can the DPP government turn this poor situation around before the presidential and legislative elections in 2020? DPP heads have rolled following the KMT victory including those of DPP Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen, Presidential Office Secretary-General Chen Chu and Premier William Lai (whose resignation has still not been accepted). Such resignations to accept responsibility for electoral defeat have become customary on both sides of politics in Taiwan. But who will replace these people? Will true reformers come into power and will they be allowed to act?
Will the DPP have a new generation? People like Su Tseng-chang have made great contributions to the DPP in the past, but why are new people not being nominated? In many countries of the world, national leaders are in their thirties and forties. Why is Taiwan a leader in gerontocracy?
If the DPP had insisted that Pasuya Yao not run in Taipei, the DPP could have maintained its close informal alliance with Ko Wen-Jie. Instead, we had a knife-edge election with Ko winning by only 3000 votes. Has Yao’s candidacy, which only obtained one in six Taipei votes, badly damaged the informal alliance between the DPP and Ko? Where is DPP’s central leadership on such matters?
If the DPP can restructure and implement the reforms that Taiwan’s young people—Taiwan’s future—seek, then it still has a good chance in the 2020 elections as the KMT is still not unified. Overall, the KMT did not win seats; rather the DPP lost them because the DPP has lost the confidence of voters. Even KMT leaders admit that the DPP government is still in a much better position than the Ma Ying-jeou government after the 2014 local elections.
Can the DPP government turn around its disastrous governmental performance? Or, will it slide to a massive defeat in 2020 even as the KMT continues to fail to reform?
Bruce Jacobs is Emeritus Professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. This article was originally published by the Taipei Times and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Artemas Liu/Flickr.