On November 24, voters went to the polls for Taiwan’s combined “9-in-1” local elections. In all, more than 10,000 elected offices were at stake, ranging from village chiefs up to the mayors of Taiwan’s six special municipalities. Also facing the voters were 10 referendums that were qualified for the ballot via citizen petition, marking the first use of the Referendum Law since signature and turnout thresholds were lowered in December 2017. Given the large number of offices and issues at stake and the high-profile mayoral campaigns, these elections also served as an important barometer of long-term political trends in Taiwan.
The results delivered a stinging defeat to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its party chairwoman, President Tsai Ing-wen. In the elections for city and county executives, the DPP lost in eight of the 14 localities it had previously controlled, including two marquee contests in the special municipalities of Taichung and Kaohsiung, while failing to pick up any. As the scope of the party’s defeat became apparent, President Tsai stepped down as party chair, though she refused to accept the resignations of Premier William Lai and Secretary-General of the Presidential Office Chen Chu, who will remain in their posts.
The main beneficiary of the DPP’s struggles in these elections was the Kuomintang (KMT), whose long-term prospects many observers had written off after its own disastrous defeats in 2014 and 2016. The shocker of the election cycle was in Kaohsiung, where the KMT nominee Han Kuo-yu, a massive underdog at the beginning of the race, ran an unorthodox campaign that succeeded in attracting blanket coverage in both traditional and social media outlets. Han ended up winning 53 percent of the vote, and his victory ended 20 years of DPP rule in Kaohsiung. But KMT candidates ran quite strong in most of the other local executive races as well. In Taichung, legislator Lu Shiow-yen defeated incumbent mayor Lin Chia-lung by a 57-43 percent margin, a 14-point reversal from Lin’s victory in 2014. In New Taipei, deputy mayor Hou You-yi won with 57 percent of the vote over the former Taipei County executive and DPP chairman Su Tseng-chang. Around the rest of Taiwan, KMT candidates nearly swept the slate of competitive executive races, picking up Yilan, Changhua, Yunlin, Chiayi City, and Penghu from the DPP, and Kinmen and Hualien from independents, while holding on to Miaoli, Nantou, Taitung, and Hsinchu Counties. The only toss-up race in which the KMT candidate fell short was in Taipei, where independent mayor Ko Wen-je was reelected by less than 4000 votes in a three-way race. In all, KMT mayors will lead 15 cities and counties, up from six after the last election, while the DPP will run only six, down from 14.
The KMT’s recovery was also apparent in the city and county council races. The main opposition party picked up eight seats and will now hold a majority in nine councils, including Kaohsiung, up from six in 2014. DPP lost 53 council seats, falling to 238 from 291, and independents rose to 234, continuing a long-term pattern of successful independent candidates in local council races. Among the smaller parties, the most notable winner was the New Power Party (NPP), whose candidates won 16 seats around the island, though short of the 20 its leaders were aiming for. The NPP also significantly outpaced other small parties in the vote share, and it is now a clear-cut third in the Taiwanese party system as other, older parties have continued their decline: the People First Party won only eight council seats, the Taiwan Solidarity Union will hold only five and the New Party two, compared to nine, nine, and two in 2014.
The referendum results also suggested a conservative mood in the electorate. Taiwan voters decisively supported proposals to limit marriage to a man and a woman and to bar discussion of LGBT issues in elementary and middle schools, and they rejected competing pro-LBGT referendums on both issues. Proposals to reverse the phase-out of nuclear power by 2025, to lower thermal coal power generation by one percent a year, to stop construction of new coal plants, and to maintain a ban on imports from Japanese prefectures affected by the Fukushima disaster all garnered large majorities in support, while a proposal to change the official name of the Olympic team from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan” failed on worries it would prevent Taiwanese athletes from competing at all.
Why the DPP Defeat?
The national political environment clearly shaped voting patterns in the mayor and county executive elections: the swing from DPP to KMT candidates varied across localities but was on average quite high, at 8.4 percent of the two-party vote. (For comparison, the swing toward the DPP in the 2016 presidential race was only about 5.3 percent). Despite the reelection of popular incumbents in Taoyuan, Keelung, and Hsinchu City, there was a massive decline in overall support for the DPP: its candidates collectively won 932,000 fewer votes than in 2014, and if we exclude Taipei, where the party did not field a candidate in 2014, the drop is over a million. A decline that large cannot be attributed solely to candidate quality and idiosyncratic local factors. Put simply, this was an anti-DPP wave.
So what caused the wave? There is a tendency among international observers to view all Taiwanese election results through the prism of cross-Strait relations, and to attribute President Tsai’s unpopularity to the increasing pressure that Beijing has put on her administration. Nevertheless, while we cannot be sure without detailed public opinion data, domestic factors appear to have been more important than cross-Strait ones in these elections. For one, Beijing’s pressure tactics have been relentless since President Tsai took office, yet her approval ratings have fluctuated significantly over the past two years, and she has managed to offset some diplomatic losses with other symbolic achievements in the US-Taiwan relationship. Taiwan’s economic situation has also continued steady improvement in recent months, despite the cross-Strait political freeze, and much of the complex coalition that supported Tsai in the 2016 elections was wary of closer cross-Strait ties anyway and unlikely to abandon her over trouble with Beijing.
By contrast, that same coalition has been divided over several critical issues facing Tsai and the DPP, among them labor regulations, energy policy, and LGBT rights. Labor rights turned into a political minefield for the DPP, and the party ultimately managed to alienate both pro-business and pro-labor supporters by strengthening and then watering down rules for work hours and overtime pay. A similar dynamic occurred over energy policy: the DPP enacted an amendment committing to the phase-out of nuclear power by 2025, and the Tsai administration blocked restarts of three reactors that had been shut down for maintenance. That required generating more electricity from coal-fired power plants and left the ruling party’s energy policy vulnerable to criticism during a blackout in the summer of 2017 and serious air pollution events in each of the past two winters. On LGBT rights, amendments to add same-sex marriage to the civil code have remained stalled in the legislature for the past two years, even after a constitutional court ruling in favor, and face uncertain prospects after being decisively defeated in the referendum votes. On each of these issues, the Tsai administration managed to disappoint erstwhile supporters on both sides and leave core supporters disillusioned going into the campaign.
The KMT’s resurgence in this election can also be attributed at least in part to DPP policies, including the perceived actions of the Ill-Gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee and the suppousedly partisan motivations of members of the Transitional Justice Commission, both of which appeared directly to threaten the viability of the KMT. In addition, in an effort to put government finances on a more sustainable path, the DPP-led legislature passed significant cuts to civil servant and military pensions, delivering a blow to core KMT constituencies but also motivating them to turn out in force in the local elections.
What Does It Mean for the Future?
First, reports of the KMT’s demise have clearly been exaggerated. The party’s resurgence in this election was real, and it is likely to pose a stiff challenge to the DPP in the general elections in 2020. The results confirm that Taiwan’s party system remains a highly institutionalized DPP-KMT duopoly. Voters unhappy with the DPP overwhelmingly cast ballots for the KMT’s nominees rather than for third-party candidates, especially in the most high-profile races. Despite the NPP’s limited breakthrough in the local councils, it still remains a minor player in election contests, and neither it nor any other “Third Force” group looks likely to surpass either of the two major parties anytime soon.
Second, President Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election prospects, which already appeared uncertain, look even more precarious now. Her resignation as DPP chair will at least temporarily create a power vacuum within the party and weaken her ability to shape the political agenda. It is possible that significant daylight could open up between President Tsai and DPP party headquarters, the party’s caucus in the Legislative Yuan, and even Premier Lai, and she may well face an intra-party challenge for the DPP nomination in 2020.
On the KMT side, the party’s unexpectedly strong showing has brightened its prospects for national elections in 2020. It also, paradoxically, has increased the possibility of a damaging intra-party fight for the presidential nomination. Wu Den-yi, the current party chairman and presumptive favorite to be the party’s standard-bearer, led the successful campaign but found himself sidelined in the final weeks by the surge in Han Kuo-yu’s popularity. Other potential challengers, too, are lurking in the shadows and may feel emboldened by the results, including Eric Chu, Wang Jin-pyng, Hau Lung-bin, and even former president Ma Ying-jeou.
Finally, the effects of the referendum votes remain unclear: although the results are supposed to be legally binding, Taiwan’s Referendum Act as currently written has no compulsory enforcement clause unless an existing law is repealed. Thus, additional action will be required to enforce the referendum decisions, raising the prospect that the central government and DPP-led legislature will simply ignore the results for the time being. The same-sex marriage ban also conflicts with a 2017 Council of Grand Justices ruling, and while it remains legally unclear for the moment whether a referendum can take precedence, either the court or the Legislative Yuan will probably have the final word. Overall, the first use of the newly amended Referendum Act has created a new set of legal questions and policy challenges that will add a volatile new element to Taiwanese politics for the foreseeable future.
The main point: The KMT’s resurgence in the local elections means that it will pose a stiff challenge to the DPP in the general elections in 2020. While President Tsai’s reelection prospects remain uncertain, intra-party fight within the opposition for the presidential nomination may also minimize its chances in 2020.