The Democratic Progressive Party suffered a major setback in Saturday’s ‘nine-in-one’ elections, losing seven of the 13 cities and counties it had held since 2014 and now only controlling six. As the results became known, President Tsai Ing-wen, who doubles as DPP chairperson, stepped down as head of her party, as is the custom following poor showings in elections. The outcome of the election has also led to much speculation about the party’s future candidate in the 2020 presidential elections, and how Beijing is likely to interpret the results. Taiwan Sentinel chief editor J. Michael Cole provides answers to three key questions surrounding Saturday’s elections.
What is the significance of the DPP’s poor performance in the 11/24 elections? What caused this defeat?
This is an important wake-up call for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a clear sign that the Kuomintang (KMT) always had what it took to stage a comeback. I’d always disagreed with those who claimed, after the 2016 elections, that the KMT was a “spent force” bound for political oblivion. The KMT is a survivor, and it proved yet again on Saturday that it will adapt to new situations. In many ways, the DPP on Saturday was a victim of the type of electoral swing that hit the KMT in the 2014 municipal elections. Wild fluctuations in the electoral pendulum seem to suggest general dissatisfaction with ruling parties and the belief that the grass is greener on the other side — in the opposition, that is. I also believe the deep-green elements in the DPP may also have sought to punish President Tsai by not voting, but that remains to be seen once proper analysis of the vote is carried out. However, we don’t want to read too much into Saturday’s vote as an overall referendum on President Tsai or the DPP. Municipalities like Taoyuan and Hsinchu, where DPP candidates were able to keep their positions, also demonstrate that hard work and good performance while in office paid dividends — people who normally would have voted blue still voted green. As for Kaohsiung, I believe that Chen Chi-mai, the DPP candidate, may have been a victim of “DPP fatigue” after the party has ruled there for so long. People may have believed that things had gotten stagnant and wanted change, even if this came in the form of an “unusual,” and somewhat populist, candidate whose platform provided very little in terms of substance.
What will happen to the DPP? Will President Tsai face a strong challenge ahead of the 2020 general elections?
It’s too soon to tell whether this will affect party decisions as to who will run on the DPP ticket in 2020. There is no doubt, however, that President Tsai will face a serious challenge within her party, although I would argue that overall she was not responsible for the outcome of Saturday’s elections. There is a need for stability for the time being; a full Cabinet resignation would be destabilizing. In fact I’m not quite sure that it was a good idea for her to step down as party chairperson. But change will be necessary — at DPP headquarters, and in government. The DPP needs to reconnect with the ground, as it were; it needs to learn from what happened at the weekend and do what must be done to better connect with voters ahead of 2020 — and by this I do not mean moving toward the more “extremist” stance favored by the deep-greens. There was complacency in many areas, and this needs to be addressed.
Will China see the result of the 11/24 elections as an opportunity to extend its reach via KMT-ruled cities?
That is a possibility. I would expect “rewards” to those municipalities, possibly in the form of an uptick in the number of Chinese tourists, for example. Already, the elected KMT heads of Kaohsiung and Taichung have announced that they will form “cross-Strait working groups” and recognize the so-called “1992 consensus” once they enter office. It’s always been part of Beijing’s strategy to bypass the central government in Taipei by establishing direct links at the municipal level. Countering this will be a major challenge for the central administration, as we can expect Beijing and its counterparts in Taiwan will try to rapidly demonstrate the benefits of rapprochement ahead of the January 2020 general election. That being said, we must remember that when the KMT was firmly in power and was seen to have gotten too close to China, it, too, suffered severe defeats in elections, both in 2014 and 2016. That’s the beauty of democracy; it swings like a pendulum, but in that process it also imposes checks and balances. It gives Taiwan a resilience that non-democratic states do not enjoy. If the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party become hubristic after this weekend, they risk overreaching and could easily prompt another round of countervailing action à la Sunflower Movement. By no means did this election signify that the Taiwanese have become more pro-Beijing.
Democracy requires vigilance. In the view of many, the results of 11/24 increased Beijing’s nefarious influence in Taiwan. Society and political parties now need to conjugate with those results and adapt accordingly. It’s a never-ending battle with an opponent that simply will not give up. The game’s gotten a bit more difficult, but it’s far from over.
Top photo courtesy of the Tsai Ing-wen official Facebook page.
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