Taiwan’s shifting political landscape

Author: Fu-Kuo Liu, National Chengchi University

The results of Taiwan’s local elections, held in November, came as a big surprise to many not only in Taiwan. The ruling Kuomingtang (KMT) was defeated by an unprecedented margin. The results were a sharp reversal from those of the 2012 presidential election, won by the KMT. In the municipal mayoral elections, the KMT came away with only one out of six municipalities and five out of sixteen municipal cities and counties. The results have significantly changed Taiwan’s political landscape. But they should not be considered a referendum on cross-strait relations.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou speaking at a campaign rally before Taiwan's local elections. President Ma resigned from his position as chairman of the Kuomingtang soon after the election results were confirmed, leaving the party in chaos. (Photo: AAP).

While most surveys conducted prior to the election predicted a likely loss for the KMT, none envisioned a defeat on such a scale. Many are wondering why the ruling government was so badly crushed. Importantly, the outcome breaks the pattern of traditional party strongholds at the local level in Taiwan. It may directly impact the 2016 presidential election and result in a possible change of course in cross-strait relations, which have been flourishing.

President Ma Ying-jeou resigned from his position as chairman of the KMT soon after the election results were confirmed, leaving the party in chaos. Ma’s unpopularity plagued the party during the campaign. His administration has been seen as indecisive, capricious, ineffective, weak, lacking momentum, and short-sighted. Two important groups of swinging voters determined the election: frustrated KMT supporters who chose not to vote and uncertain young voters who turned out in unprecedented numbers.

The Sunflower Movement, which began as a student demonstration in March 2014, clearly reflected the public’s concerns about the future of the nation and the future course of cross-strait relations. The government mishandled the occupation of the Legislative Yuan by students for over a month last year. Worse still, the government has not actively responded to students’ requests for a transparent and constitutional procedure for legislative scrutiny of cross-strait deals. The legislature’s decision not to ratify the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) between China and Taiwan has been interpreted as a clear sign of rising anti-China sentiment in Taiwan society.

The crux of the political impasse, however, is the rivalry between President Ma and the speaker of the Legislative Yuan, Wang Jin-pyng, who is also a vice chairman of the KMT. Although the KMT has held a majority of seats for six years, most of Ma’s policy efforts have been crippled in the legislature. Ma’s tendency to circumvent legislative scrutiny on cross-strait deals has meant that legislators, dissatisfied with Ma’s methods, have boycotted proposed legislation. KMT supporters are frustrated with the ineffective and weak governance of Ma and his party. This election was definitely a vote of no confidence in the Ma administration.

Taiwan’s political landscape is always sensitive to cross-strait relations and regional security. While the decision of swinging voters to opt for the DPP won’t necessarily be permanent, it does add to the unpredictability of the future of cross-strait relations.

Following the KMT’s defeat, Beijing has tried hard to figure out what exactly is happening in Taiwan and is questioning whether it should adjust its present course, characterised by a relatively benign cross-strait policy. Similarly, the US government was surprised to learn that Ma has become such an unpopular figure among voters but has declined to make any clear comments on the future of cross-strait relations. It also stresses that the US continues to encourage both sides to improve relations.

All this has led some commentators to suggest that the vote was essentially a referendum on cross-strait relations. But this is mistaken. The elections were held at the local level and cross-strait issues were not touched upon at all throughout the campaign. Even the DPP quickly made clear that it would be wrong to interpret the election as a referendum on the KMT’s mainland policy. The election results should not be interpreted either as a failure of China’s or the KMT’s cross-strait policy.

Some worry about the increasing tendency towards anti-China sentiments rising up from Taiwan’s grassroots. It is true that the political changes in motion may add more unpredictability to cross-strait relations. In order to convince voters that it deserves their support, the DPP has to commit to finding common ground with China in the next few months. This is by far the greatest challenge to the independence-oriented party and its leadership.

The KMT’s defeat signaled an end to Ma’s exclusionist way of conducting cross-strait relations. But while the loss was a serious blow to the KMT and to the morale of its government, it does not mean that victory is out of reach in the 2016 general and presidential elections. The KMT will soon elect a new chairman to lead the party out of the woods. The big question is not how Beijing and Taipei should move forward quickly but how Taiwan’s leaders can convince its people to support further cross-strait economic development.

Fu-Kuo Liu is a professor at the Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University, Taiwan.

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