Taiwanese voters displeased with inaction

Author: Tomasz Koper

On November 24th, Taiwanese voters participated in a local election, largely seen as a test for the ruling administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and the Democratic Progressive Party (民主進步黨), which has been ruling the self-governing island since 2016. Both the President, and her party have clearly failed that test.

In 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, representing the Democratic Progress Party, was elected to the highest office in the country, winning comfortably over her most serious opponent – Eric Chu (朱立倫) – backed by the other of the two biggest political forces in Taiwan, the Kuomintang (國民黨). Her victory, accompanied by DPP’s success in general election, held concurrently to the presidential, ended a two-term dominance of Taiwanese political scene by the KMT. Two years on, the voters seem to have turned away from the more independence-oriented DPP, and opted for the more China-leaning KMT.

This November, voters elected officials and council members in twenty-two local authorities. Looking at the post-result map of the island, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that DPP has lost the election spectacularly. The party lost in most jurisdictions where they were running for re-election, including the traditionally “green” (the color associated with DPP, with KMT being identified with blue) city of Kaohsiung (高雄), considered its stronghold. The size of the electoral defeat forced President Tsai to follow her party’s tradition, and step down as party head.

The latest election was also coupled with a referendum in which the voters were asked to answer ten questions on a wide range of topics, including environmental protection, nuclear power, marriage equality, gender and sex education in schools, and using the name ‘Taiwan’ when participating in international athletic competitions, instead of ‘Chinese Taipei’, used now due to pressure from Beijing.

What are the reasons for such a rapid shift of voter opinions away from DPP, back towards the KMT? How did the ruling party manage to turn a majority support into such a potentially-disastrous defeat in the span of only two years? In the media swarm of analyses and explanations following the election results, the overall trend seems to point towards failed expectations of economic improvement

In the years following the global financial crisis of 2008, Taiwan has seen a period of economic stagnation. Once named one of the four Asian tigers, alongside Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore, the self-governing island managed to survive the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis relatively unscathed, with its economy growing at a pace exceeding 5% annually, but in the decade since 2008, the rate of growth has declined significantly. At the same time, property prices have skyrocketed which made life difficult both for those Taiwanese willing to invest in the property market, traditionally seen as one of the best forms of allocating one’s assets, as well as young people wanting to start families. Average salaries for graduates entering the labor market have also remained largely unchanged, resting around the now-almost-proverbial 22 thousand NTD, which is nowhere near enough for even a basic existence in some of Taiwan’s biggest cities. Needless to say, the value of that average salary has depreciated greatly due to inflation, and many young graduates of Taiwanese universities prefer to forge their paths abroad, rather than at home, even if that means picking fruit in Australia or working in China’s smoggy, crowded metropolises.

President Tsai’s administration was elevated to power riding a wave of disappointment with the policies of the last President, KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), whose second term was marked by the Sunflower Student Movement, seen as a popular reaction to his attempts at making the Taiwanese market more reliant on China, and bringing the two economies closer together. For almost a month, university students and youth activists occupied the Legislative Yuan (立法院, Taiwan’s parliament) to protest the passing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement without due legislative process. In their view, the law would leave the Taiwanese economy vulnerable to competition of large enterprises from China, and open political to pressure from Beijing. Many thought the agreement benefitted China more than Taiwan

President Tsai seems to have taken only part of the lesson from those events to heart. Along with DPP at large, she has presented herself as a champion of keeping Taiwan out of direct control from Beijing, even if carefully navigating around the word “independence”, but her administration has done little to address the country’s stagnating economy, or provide an alternative for closer ties with China. Despite a small uptick in GDP growth since taking office in 2016, she and her administration were popularly seen as ineffective, even though the DPP held a majority position in the parliament and in local authorities.

Many voters became displeased at the cooling of relations between Taiwan and China following, but also preceding President Tsai’s election to the office. Even though Tsai has avoided having a clear stance on Taiwanese independence her election displeased the leadership of the People’s Republic. Starting with warning heads of states and local politicians like U.S. senators, not to send congratulatory notes to the then-President-elect in 2016, Beijing began a policy of diplomatic and economic isolation of the island, designed to pressure the administration externally, as well as internally, and discredit it in the eyes of the voters.

President Tsai’s government is also considered inert on issues other than the economy. DPP opposes the expansion of Taiwan’s nuclear energy capabilities and has halted the construction of additional plants. At the same time, however, it has failed to implement an environmentally-sound alternative, expanding or at least maintaining fossil-fuel-reliant methods instead. In places like Taichung, Taiwan’s second most populous city and home to one of the world’s biggest coal power plants, holder of the inglorious title of the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, this point matters greatly.

The ruling DPP administration has been also seen as sitting on their hands on the issue of marriage equality raised again in the form of a referendum that accompanied this year’s election. The question came to prominence in May 2017, when the Constitutional Court ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry under the R.O.C. constitution, and gave the Legislative Yuan two years to amend the laws accordingly. The inclusion of this issue on the referendum, despite already being decided on by the court, was seen by many supporters of marriage equality as a way absolve the DPP of responsibility for implementing the changes, and possibly alienating their more traditionally-minded electorate

Vocal support, as well as opposition to marriage equality intensified in the run-up to the referendum, with that topic coming to the forefront of the discussion, far ahead other questions. Despite Christianity being a rather small minority in Taiwan, many groups backed by Christian organization, like Coalition for the Happiness of our Next Generation (下一代幸福聯盟), conducted active campaigns on Facebook, via LINE messages, and through PPT – a popular Taiwanese message board system – convincing voters to oppose the idea of same-sex marriages. Some widely-shared messages contained homophobic, and outright false information, warning people of hordes of HIV-positive homosexuals flocking to Taiwan in order to get married, and obtain health insurance. Taiwanese law does not grant foreign spouses of any sex automatic health insurance coverage from day one. The opposition to marriage equality proved to be more efficient at mobilizing activists, reaching out to voters in the real worlds, and better funded, e.g. by a church receiving generous donations from HTC chairwoman Cher Wang 王雪紅, than supporters of marriage equality, whose efforts failed to reach audiences far beyond the echo chambers of the liberal electorate in big cities. The issue was ultimately rejected in the referendum, with 32.7% of votes in support against 67.3% in opposition, although the Judicial Yuan (司法院) has since said, that the referendum is not legally binding, due to the issue being one of constitutionality, not popular opinion. In addition, voters have supported restricting marriage to a “one man one woman” model, and opposed introducing aspects of sexual education relating to homosexuality to elementary schools.

People have also expressed support for reducing the output of coal-burning power plants, halting their expansion, and prohibiting imports of food from Fukushima region in Japan, which suffered a nuclear contamination in 2011, but at the same time agreed to repeal the planned retiring of Taiwan’s nuclear power plants. Some claim the four questions regarding power generation, and nuclear plants have been included in an attempt to further discredit the DPP government, which failed to effectively address Taiwan’s energy security, and power-generation issues.

The November local election and the accompanying referendum are a clear warning shot for President Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP. They do not yet signify a strong return of KMT, although it is a possible scenario, if the ruling administration remains inert and indecisive. Rather, they are an expression of the voters’ displeasure at continuing economic stagnation and inaction by the DPP, who sat in opposition for almost a decade, but when finally given all the executive and legislative power it might need to introduce meaningful changes, seems to run around in circles, and sit on their hands.

The election has seen a cautious rise out of obscurity and insignificance of other political forces, like the New Power Party (時代力量), who hope to soak up voters displeased with both the DPP and KMT. It has also initiated a discussion on foreign interference in the electoral process, with (unsubstantiated, thus excluded from this commentary) accusations leveled against some candidates of relying on China-backed internet trolls to boost public presence, and gain advantage over political opponents. Readers in Europe, and North America would find both the accusations, and the ensuing discussion, uncomfortably familiar.

For better or worse, this has been a pivotal election for the ruling administration. Whether they will be able to learn from their defeat or break apart under the pressure, will become apparent in the next two years

Tomasz Koper is a sinologist, originally from Warsaw, Poland, now living and working on a Ph.D. thesis in the field of legal history at National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan.