Taiwan’s Changing Political Landscape: The KMT’s Landslide Defeat in the Nine-in-One Elections

The KMT’s landslide defeat in Taiwan’s nine-in-one local elections on November 29, 2014 is a political earthquake. Speculation about the implications of the election results has risen quickly as analysts and pundits discuss Taiwan’s changing political landscape and prospects for the January 2016 presidential election. Great concern is also given to potential changes in cross-strait relations.

The Changing Political Landscape

Most observers expected that the Kuomintang (KMT) would fare poorly in the nine-in-one elections, but few predicted it would lose so badly. In the six elections for head of the largest municipalities, the KMT won only New Taipei City, and narrowly at that; it lost the other five municipalities to the opposition. For city mayoral or county magistrate elections, the KMT retained only six out of the sixteen seats. The KMT no longer enjoys a predominant advantage in city councils; the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has largely matched the KMT in the total number of seats nationwide, and even holds a majority of seats in six districts, including New Taipei City, Yilan County, Yunlin County, Chiayi County, Tainan City, and Kaohsiung City. Overall, the results are an unprecedented electoral setback for the KMT, and a news report in the China Times (on November 30) even described the election results sarcastically: “Only the presidential office remains for KMT after its total defeat.”

No doubt the DPP is the major winner, and its share of the popular vote in the 22 districts surpassed the KMT’s by a significant margin (47.6 percent to 40.7 percent, not including Taipei City), which projects an optimistic future for the 2016 presidential election. In addition to the vote swings in Taipei and New Taipei, the DPP’s victories in Taichung and Taoyuan municipalities as well as five other cities/counties has greatly swayed political momentum in DPP’s favor and totally changes the political landscape in Taiwan. The conventional wisdom – that the pan-blue camp (the KMT and similar smaller parties) is generally supported by 55 percent of the population and the pan-green (the DPP and similar smaller parties) is supported by 45 percent – did not hold true in these elections.

The systematic shift is best illustrated by the margins of the KMT star Chu Li-lun’s (Eric Chu) scary win in New Taipei City as well as the KMT’s loss to the opposition in Taipei City. According to pre-election polls, Eric Chu led his DPP opponent by more than 25 percent in New Taipei City (49 percent vs. 22 percent, November 16, United Daily News). While Chu won, his margin was only 1.28 percent, about 20 percent short of expectations. In Taipei City, the pan-blue normally lead pan-green candidates in vote shares by a margin between 15 and 20 percent, specifically 58.6 percent vs. 41.2 percent in 2006 and 55.7 percent vs. 43.8 percent in 2010. This time the KMT candidate acquired only 40.8 percent of votes in contrast to the opposition candidate’s 57.2 percent. Thus, the KMT lost 15 to 20 percent of the votes it normally receives. The KMT’s loss of 15 to 20 percent of ballots in the pan-blue’s northern heartland defines the changing political landscape in this election, and whoever represents the opposition can easily absorb those vanishing KMT votes.

There are other winners in addition to the DPP, and their victory has profound meaning for Taiwan’s future democracy. The newly-elected mayor of Taipei City, Dr. Ko Wen-je, is unquestionably in the spotlight, and public attention has been long directed to his non-partisan appeal and the possible emergence of a third political force that transcends the partisan rivalry between pan-blue and pan-green. Running as an independent candidate, Ko Wen-je’s nonpartisan campaign strategy has inspired many hopes that his victory can ease political polarization and open a new era for civic politics in Taiwan.

Citizen groups and student organizations, which have initiated a series of political and social movements in the past few years, such as the Sunflower Movement and the White Shirt Army (a mass protest following the death of army conscript Hung Chung-Chu), are also conspicuous winners. Their anti-KMT campaign obviously resonated with many voters, who gave an unambiguous vote of non-confidence to the Ma administration and caused Premier Jiang Yi-huah’s resignation.

The biggest winner in the nine-in-one elections is Taiwan’s democracy. During the election, there were neither political strife, acts of violence, or a “November surprise” to interfere with the campaign process and jeopardize the legitimacy of election results. Furthermore, KMT leaders are willing to recognize their political failure to win people’s hearts and minds, and that acceptance vividly exemplifies what political accountability is all about in a democracy.

Why Did the KMT Lose So Badly?

At least six major factors can explain why the KMT suffered such an unprecedented landslide defeat. First and foremost is the popular discontent toward the Ma administration’s performance. Specific problems include long-term wage stagnation, worsening social inequality, surging inflation due to the soaring price of gas and electricity, corruption scandals, the cutdown of retiree benefits for military personnel, school teachers, and government employees, and the recent food safety problems. While the Ma administration might not be completely responsible for all of the problems, a strong impression exists in the general public that the KMT failed to solve major issues and in fact aggravated some of them.

Second, internal political struggles have further tarnished the KMT’s image. The fight is not just between President Ma and Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, but is also reflected in the frequent turnover of cabinet members. In some cases the dismissal turns very ugly, such as the sacking of Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Deputy Minister Chang Hsien-yao. These instances all contribute to the deterioration of KMT’s image and the decline of its political support.

Third, many have serious doubts about the KMT’s cross-strait policy. The Sunflower Movement highlights the debate about whether Taiwan should pursue economic growth by overdependence on China, which can limit Taiwan’s political choices if the cross-strait relations eventually turn sour. This is the deepest fear for those who oppose Ma’s economic policy centering on market integration with China.

Fourth, the style of Ma’s political leadership has been widely criticized, particularly his “inner-circle decision-making.” President Ma has a tendency to stand firm on his principles and insist on carrying out certain unpopular policies because of his strong convictions. Unfortunately, most of those policies require supermajority support to succeed, but Ma failed to understand this and stayed in his comfort zone with inner-circle advisors, whose political views are homogenous and very close to Ma’s own opinions in the first place.

Fifth, the KMT made some mistakes in its campaign and nomination strategy, particularly in its reliance on political factions and parachute candidates. In contrast to the DPP’s nominees, some KMT candidates were relatively lacking in local connections and grassroots support. Specifically in central and southern Taiwan, the KMT showed little intention to foster its own candidates, instead recruiting nominees from political factions or bringing in parachute candidates from other locations. As the results show, these candidates can hardly compete with those who are deeply connected to the local district on a daily basis.

Lastly, the impression that the KMT serves primarily the interests of entrepreneurs, the wealthy, and dignitaries has lingered and is even amplified as the KMT has appealed to voters on the issue of trade liberalization but has not mentioned generational inequality in economic issues and career opportunity. In addition, the image of Lien Sheng-wen (Sean Lien), the KMT candidate in Taipei City, shifted from that of an outspoken critic of President Ma to, later, a typical second-generation politician standing with Ma. Lien’s image change cost him support from people longing for political reform, even many inside the pan-blue camp.

While it is reasonable to assume that these six factors might all contribute to the KMT’s loss, it is not clear whether they were indeed in play and to what relative degree they mattered. More research on post-election polls is necessary to find the answer.

Prospects for the 2016 Presidential Race

One consequence of the KMT’s landslide defeat is the suddenly increased potential for transfer of national political power to the DPP in the 2016 presidential and legislative elections.

President Ma has resigned from his post of KMT chairman and promised greater reform inside the party, but the extent to which Ma is willing to step aside and make room for the new KMT leadership remains unclear. Looking back, former Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian both faced similar situations of internal power transition when approaching the end of their terms but neither chose to relinquish control of the party, and both eventually lost governing power. There is a widespread belief that KMT might still have a remote chance to win the 2016 presidential election, provided Ma decisively carries out a prompt and thorough power transition to a promising political star such as Eric Chu, but this is contingent on whether the incumbent will let go of power and whether the successor is bold enough to bear the burden.

The DPP’s solid victory almost secures Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen’s ticket for the 2016 presidential race. The greater challenge lying in front of her for winning the presidency is whether she can propose a convincing cross-strait policy that satisfies the doubts in domestic and international audiences. Tsai has to address other intractable issues as well. The economic problem is the most important issue Tsai needs to work on: the DDP prefers keeping a comfortable distance from being integrated with China, but it must also find a way to achieve satisfactory economic performance. The predicament of generational injustice is another tough problem Tsai must solve in response to high expectations from the social groups which have protested against the Ma administration. From now on, Tsai should work to win voters’ support not because people dislike the KMT but because they recognize her as a real leader.

Taipei City Mayor-elect Ko could be the only opposition candidate who outshines Tsai, but he is not a DPP member. He has announced many policies that aim to keep his non-partisan appeal right after the election, which signifies his intention to remain politically independent and outside the DDP’s institutional framework. During the campaign, there was a certain level of tension between Ko and the DPP, and eventually Ko wrestled his way out and forced the DPP to give up its game-setting role inside the opposition camp. Ko’s successful campaign to project himself as an accommodative political leader beyond partisan interests indicates a way to outcompete both the KMT and DPP in the future elections, including the 2016 presidential race. Ko has claimed no interest in running for president in 2016 or 2020, but it is still too early to tell where Ko is going to lead his non-partisan support, which potential alliances he will choose, and on which battlefield he will make his next political move.

Given that political momentum has dramatically shifted to its favor, the DPP might be able to achieve what the KMT did in 2012: winning the presidential and legislative elections at the same time. This forecast is made from the political effect of combined presidential and Legislative Yuan elections, in which voters’ attention will be diverted to the presidential race, and therefore their votes for legislators will be influenced by their choice of the presidential candidate. The SMP (single member plurality) electoral system also strengthens such a “multiplying effect” since each legislative district is very likely to have the same blue-green competition just like in the presidential race. Unless the split-voting tendency (voting for different parties in the presidential and legislative races) is very high, the party which wins the presidential election is possible to win more legislative seats, too. This might lead to over-representation of the winning party and under-presentation of the losing one. In the first combined elections in 2012, the KMT acquired 48.1 percent of votes across constituencies but won 63.0 percent of seats in the LY; in contrast, the DPP received 44.5 percent of votes but this led to only 36.0 percent of the legislature’s seats. The situation might be reversed in 2016, if the DPP wins the presidential election convincingly.

Ramifications for Cross-Strait Relations

Many international media regarded the KMT’s unprecedented setback as a rejection of its economic policy of close engagement with China, and there was a lot of loose analysis claiming that the KMT lost the election simply because people oppose cross-strait relations becoming too close. There might be a grain of truth to that argument, but it is confined mostly to disagreement over how Taiwan can maintain its political independence while enlarging its economic engagement with China. This is different from blind opposition to close and peaceful cross-strait relations. Most domestic media adopted the opposite understanding and ascribed the KMT’s loss largely to domestic issues rather than the cross-strait factor. Affirmative evidence for this view can be found in the fact that none of the DDP and independent candidates framed this election as a choice of pro-unification vs. pro-independence, but rather a pro-Ma vs. anti-Ma.

Beijing consistently reiterates there will be no change in its current cross-strait policy, regardless of the election results. While refusing to comment on the elections, Beijing did call for all Taiwanese to accept the “1992 Consensus” but emphasized that Beijing has no intention to involve itself in Taiwan’s local elections. However, there is some apprehension about the DPP’s victory because Tsai Ing-wen expressed earlier this year that “[t]he DPP’s biggest challenge is the [nine-in-one] elections. If we do well, even China will adjust its policy toward the DPP,” indicating that the DPP will not significantly alter its approach to cross-strait relations. With the unprecedented victory, there is a big question mark whether Tsai will be emboldened to stand firm on this ground or whether she will be more cautious when speaking on her view of cross-strait policy. One thing can be sure: the KMT’s defeat reminds Beijing that its cross-strait policy should be more balanced toward and bipartisan when engaging with a variety of political forces in Taiwan. Beijing should work to reach all social strata and convince Taiwanese people that economic integration with China will only benefit Taiwan more, without negative consequence. In this regard, the issue of generational economic injustice should have greater priority than pushing forward the cross-strait agreements on trade in services, trade in goods, and taxation.