Explaining the Results of Taiwan’s Mid-Term Election

Written by John Copper.

On November 24, 2018, Taiwan held its mid-term election or what was better known as its “Nine-in-One Election.” Voters went to the polls to pick virtually all local executives — more than 11,000 — at nine levels of government. The election was almost as important as Taiwan’s joint presidential/vice presidential and legislative elections held at different four-year intervals.

Voters also cast ballots for ten referendums. This was the first time this degree of direct voicing policy views was done in Taiwan. It was said to make Taiwan more democratic than ever.

By almost every measure offered to assess the results of the election, the KMT (Kuomintang) won big. And the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) lost big. At the top of the list of local executive offices that were at stake were the metropolitan city mayors. Before the election, the DPP owned four and there was one independent (who was pro-DPP and whom the DPP supported); there was but one KMT mayor. As a result of this election, there will be three KMT metropolitan city mayors, two DPP mayors and one independent (who is no longer aligned with the DPP). In other lesser races, the KMT also prevailed.

After the vote tallies were in, President Tsai Ing-wen resigned from her position as chair of the DPP, signifying the failures of her administration. Premier Lai also offered to step down (though this was not accepted). How does one explain the results of this election that were so different from the last mid-term in 2014 and the 2016 election that made Tsai president and the DPP the ruling party?

One important factor was the state of the economy. The “pocketbook theory” of how voters decide was almost always relevant in Taiwan’s elections. It helps explain why the KMT lost in 2016. It explains why the DPP performed badly in this one. The Tsai administration had brought the economy out of negative growth, but still expansion of the gross national product (GDP) was unimpressive. It lagged behind the other “small dragons” — South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore — that benchmarked Taiwan’s performance. Taiwan was also below the world’s average. Last but not least, the prospects for growth were feeble and Taiwan’s economic performance was way below China’s.

President Tsai had promised better during the 2016 campaign. Also, her strategy for growth became the subject of doubt more and more during her 18 months in office. Further she campaigned on reducing Taiwan’s economic dependence on China, which she and her party fretted would lead to binding political ties. But rather than reducing Taiwan’s reliance on China, cross-Strait commerce increased.

Arguably worse than slow growth in the eyes of voters were President Tsai’s unfulfilled promises to fix the gap between rich and poor and the inequities suffered by workers and young people. These matters were still bothering voters.

Another salient matter was President Tsai and the DPP’s vows to undertake needed reforms and get results. Pension and labour fixes were at the top of the agenda. Pension reform meant “redirecting” a large number of residents’ incomes or part of them. It especially hurt the military. It had a significant impact on voters in Kaohsiung where the KMT candidate won after a 20-plus year hiatus.

Changes in labour rules became equally contentious and divisive. The debates on wages and work hours pleased neither the business community nor workers. In addition, increasing workers’ wages collided with the matter of Taiwan’s exports remaining competitive and with Taiwan’s serious and worsening brain drain.

Actions on these and other reforms got bogged down in the legislature because they turned out to be more complicated than they appeared during the campaign. Movement on them was slow — too slow for voters. Also, part of the problem was that DPP legislators were united during the campaign and became self-serving once in office.

Another snag were the pledges of better treatment of the Aborigines, which they came to view as promises made and promises not kept. They saw that the DPP was pushing reforms such as seizing KMT money but doing nothing to help them. This was revealed by the activities of the legislative committees — lots of meetings to do something about the former and almost none to remedy the latter.

Also, there were glaring reforms needed that were missing from consideration. The most prominent were the long-proposed Constitutional reforms to fix the awkward political system called “semi-presidentialism.” President Tsai considered Constitutional change radioactive, as it would invite proposals on Taiwan’s independence. During the 2016 campaign she fell back on the Constitution (which sets forth a one-China proposition) to justify her status quo policy vis-à-vis China. But post-election her supporters opposed this policy and came to see her as weak on the independence issue. Thus, not even the issue of absentee voting, a provision most democracies have and Taiwan should have given the inconvenience and expense to voters to return to Taiwan to vote, was entertained seriously. Some other reform ideas also went missing.

Another broad matter that hurt President Tsai and the DPP’s images and dismayed voters was their handling of cross-Strait relations. After the 2016 election, both took a pro-independence, anti-China stance that became their everyday narrative that they thought would ensure public support. But it didn’t.

The Tsai administration suffered embarrassment at Beijing’s hands at almost every turn. China hurt Taiwan’s tourist industry by cutting the number of its citizens that visited Taiwan and sent those left to districts controlled by the KMT. It grabbed away Taiwan’s diplomatic partners. Beijing further isolated Taiwan from international organizations. It pressured foreign businesses from speaking of Taiwan as if it had sovereignty. China intimidated Taiwan with its military buildup and military exercises near Taiwan.

China’s fast rising status in international affairs was nettlesome to the Tsai administration. So was the reality of Taiwan’s still growing economic dependence on China and its reliance on the United States to handle China’s fast-growing military threat which Taiwan could cope with less and less each day. Meanwhile, the DPP’s “bad China” story was undermined by the fact that Taiwan’s progressive friends were afraid to upset Beijing and most voters understood they could not be depended upon in a crunch. Also, it was obvious China was pulling its punches and could do much more to hurt Taiwan than it was doing. Even DPP stalwarts noted that China could easily take more of Taiwan’s diplomatic fiends if it so wanted.

The United States was a big dilemma even though relations with the Trump administration were friendly and seemingly very close in the months leading up to Election Day. But DPP leaders were apprehensive. They surmised President Trump was playing the “Taiwan card” to pressure China on the issues of trade and the theft of US intellectual property and technology. They feared Trump, being a transactional president, when he got what he wanted from China, US relations with Taiwan would turn south.

Trump also railed against countries that contributed to America’s trade deficit and those that did not keep their word to spend more on defense. Taiwan was guilty on both counts and did little or nothing to change this situation. Furthermore, there was little meeting of the minds between the progressive Tsai administration and conservative Trump people.

The fact President Tsai’s supporters, especially young foreigners from liberal Western countries that hung on in Taiwan rather than return home, wrote and spoke ill of President Trump almost daily was a case in point. This didn’t help personal relations. Further they didn’t convince voters that they mattered, hailing as they did mainly from countries that had little sway over Asian matters, especially military-strategic ones. Nor did the referendums voted on with the election help DPP candidates.

Prior to the election, the DPP-controlled legislature passed changes to the Referendum Law making it easy to get a referendum on the ballot. Thus, there were ten for voters to consider. But some were trivial; some should never have been proposed. Two referendum issues in particular hurt DPP candidates: the ones for and against same sex marriages and one demanding using of the word Taiwan in title for teams participating in Olympic games.

The DPP already had the support of pro-LGBT advocates of same sex marriage. Furthermore, the referendums caused a significant backlash. Tsai’s party lost votes from some traditional DPP voters, religious people, and admirers of Chinese culture. Also, members of the pro-independence, pro-DPP Presbyterian Church were reported sitting out the election or not voting DPP.

To alarm voters, President Tsai and her party advanced the theme of China interfering in the election and doing so with fake news and by financing anti-DPP organizations and parties. The problem with this was there was lots of fake news around. Also, money in Taiwan is free flowing. Thus, these accusations did not have the resonance hoped for.

Finally, three of the winning metropolitan mayors (two KMT and one independent) were unconventional and straight talking. They were populists. The voters found them a breath of fresh air in contrast to others they saw as, according to one observer, lawyerly wimps. Those words, he said, applied to a lot of DPP politicians.

Most observers opined that this election would influence the national election in 2020, to the disadvantage of President Tsai (who will presumably seek reelection) and the DPP. Clearly DPP candidates were hurt by their national leaders in this election. The KMT’s election strategy was simple and low-key: Talk about the economy and strained relations with China and play up the voters’ desire for change. This worked.

One final observation: The 2016 election that brought Tsai to office and gave the DPP a majority status in the legislature had the lowest voter turnout on record. This election had the highest. That may be telling.

John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies (emeritus) at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of more than thirty books on China, Taiwan and US Asia policy. This article was originally published in the IPP Review and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)/Flickr.

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