Last Saturday, Taiwan held a monumental local election. Taiwanese voted for city mayors, county and village heads, local councils, and, concurrently, voted on an unprecedented referendum with 10 items on issues like same-sex marriage, nuclear power and the official name of Taiwan’s sports teams. There were shocks in both the election and referendum as the ruling DPP (it controls the presidency and legislature, and had ruled the majority of cities and counties before this election) suffered massive losses in the elections while progressive causes on the referendum slate were defeated soundly. Many op-eds and analyses have been written about this online and in media outlets, so I will add my two cents here.
The ruling DPP, which is pro-independence and originated in the south, lost control of 7 cities and counties, holding on to only 6 of them. The KMT’s city and county winning margin of 15-6 (with the capital Taipei still undecided due to an appeal by the KMT candidate) was bad enough. However, the big shock was the DPP losing their southern stronghold Kaohsiung, the south’s biggest city, to a populist KMT populist candidate who ran a remarkable campaign. The DPP also lost Taichung, Taiwan’s biggest central city, and several southern counties. While the DPP won Tainan, another of their southern strongholds, it was by a much smaller than expected margin. The DPP’s defeat was bad enough that President Tsai Ing-wen stepped down as the DPP’s chairman, while Premier William Lai offered to resign.
This is a serious blow that has far greater ramifications beyond domestic politics, because the DPP and President Tsai had been in the vanguard of resistance against China. Now, President Tsai’s authority has been weakened and she will be vulnerable in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. The DPP has to do a lot of thinking about what went wrong and how to recover.
The KMT is openly pro-China, having originated in China and then come over after losing the civil war to the Communists. While the KMT allowed Taiwan to become democratic after decades of martial law, they have always maintained their old view of Taiwan and China being one country. Already, several KMT winners, such as Kaohsiung’s Han Guo-yu, have already said they will want to turn to China and follow the 1992 Consensus (a made-up agreement coined after a meeting between the KMT and China in which both sides are supposedly part of the same country). Obviously, the DPP and President Tsai have refused to recognize this because it implies Taiwan belongs to China, and obviously China and Xi Jinping are annoyed with this.
The DPP have been blamed for several issues ranging from a botched labor law reform effort to pension reform to economic problems to failing to be progressive enough, which brings me to the following point.
For many locals and expats, the big disappointment was with the referendum results. This was because gay marriage took up 5 of the 10 questions. Three questions were anti-gay marriage while two were pro, a reflection of Taiwan’s political freedom and quirky nature. In the end, all the anti-gay marriage questions passed while the two pro-gay marriage ones failed.
This caused some people to question Taiwan’s supposedly progressiveness, given Taiwan made international headlines in 2017 for being the first Asia nation to legalize gay marriage. However, the government did not follow through and did not pass a law to do so, hence why this issue ended up on the referendum. A lot of people think that this reflected a lack of courage from the government.
Personally, I’m not surprised the pro-gay marriage referendum items did not pass since there are still a lot of older people as well as conservative traditionalists (many, but not all who are indeed old). I also think the referendum should not have listed 10 questions which was a lot and caused voting delays in some areas, especially Taipei, as people struggled to understand all the questions.
Coming back to the city and county elections, I think the DPP failed because it overextended itself and got complacent. It made too many promises which meant a diverse array of society, from the LGBT community to pro-independence advocates, put a lot of hopes in the DPP. When change failed to materialize as quickly and as easily as thought, a lot of people were sorely disappointed. I agree with the head of a Danish NGO focused on Taiwan matters quoted here who said that the DPP’s economic initiatives haven’t taken effect yet since two years (President Tsai was elected in 2016) is not enough time. Taiwan’s economy has been in the doldrums for over 10 years and the previous president, Ma Ying-jeou, couldn’t do anything during his eight years in power. Chinese interference in the elections can hardly be ruled out, whether it be secret donations to KMT and other groups, the spreading of fake news and other forms of online propaganda.
While Taiwan’s progressive reputation may have suffered a setback, I also think that the fact many people still voted and endured long lines to do so, displayed Taiwan’s democracy is still strong. What concerns me is the weakening of President Tsai and the DPP, while the KMT now has a bigger chance for 2020.