Taiwan Election Postmortem Part 1: Tsai’s DPP Soundly Rebuked
In a stunning rebuke of the ruling pro-Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taiwanese voters sacked a majority of DPP officials serving in lower levels of government in favor of candidates from the opposition pro-PRC Nationalist Party (KMT) in “nine-in-one” local elections held on Nov. 24, 2018.
Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, holds direct elections for a total of 11 separate levels of public officials, spanning from the President all the way down to village chiefs. In the first couple of years following democratization and the first direct presidential election in 1996, all elections for the different levels of government were not synchronized, thus effectively forcing voters to go to the ballot box on a yearly basis. After an arduous constitutional amendment process in the early 2000s and successive rounds of synchronization, terms for each level of government were set to four years, with national elections (President, Vice-President, member of the Legislative Yuan) and local elections (the “nine-in-one” elections of mayors and magistrates down to village chiefs) staggered in two year intervals.
The first batch of elections under this synchronized regime took place in 2012, when Ma Ying-jeou (KMT) was re-elected as President and retained a reduced KMT majority in the legislature, and 2014, when a KMT rout in local elections effectively rendered Ma a lame-duck president for the remaining two years of his term. With Tsai as Chairwoman, the DPP’s momentum carried it to an electoral landslide victory in 2016, with Tsai being elected President alongside a commanding majority for her party in the Legislative Yuan.
This year’s local elections were the first major electoral test for the Tsai Administration. Since 2016, Tsai’s government has been engaged in several high-profile domestic political brawls, amending labor standards, transitional justice, and contentious pension reform while suffering international diplomatic setbacks in the face of an increasingly assertive mainland China. By the start of this year, Tsai’s approval rating, along with satisfaction with the DPP-controlled legislature, had plunged to levels seen for the KMT prior to its defeats in 2014 and 2016.
In 2014, out of 22 second-level administrative divisions, the DPP captured 13 mayorships and county magistrates compared to the KMT’s six, with the three remaining offices going to independents. Pre-election opinion polling in September this year hinted that the DPP was facing an uphill battle to retain the seats it gained in the previous local elections.
Voting was carried out on Saturday, Nov. 24. Results pointed to a massive swing against the DPP to the overwhelming benefit of the KMT.
Out of the six special municipalities, the KMT captured three (New Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung) to the DPP’s two (Taoyuan, Tainan), while incumbent Ko Wen-je narrowly retained his mayorship of Taipei. For counties and provincial cities, the KMT secured 12 (Hsinchu, Miaoli, Changhua, Nantou, Yunlin, Yilan, Hualien, Taitung, Penghu, Kinmen, and Lienchiang counties; Chiayi City) to the DPP’s four (Chiayi and Pingtung counties; Keelung and Hsinchu cities), thus totaling KMT holdings to 15 second-level administrative divisions (out of 22) against the DPP’s six and one independent holding Taipei City.
Results for councillors for city and county legislatures followed similar voting patterns. Out of 912 councillor seats up for election, the KMT secured 394, followed by the DPP as a distant second with 238 and barely edging out independents, which secured 234 seats. The remaining seats were taken up by a scattered assortment of minor parties, most notably the “third force” New Power Party, which secured 16 seats to become the largest non-mainstream political party in the councillor elections.
President Tsai, in response to the grim developments for her party, resigned as DPP chairwoman at a press conference called mere hours after polls in the Kaohsiung City mayoral race, a longtime stronghold for the DPP, gave way to the KMT on the same day. While Premier William Lai (DPP) also offered his resignation on the same night as the “election result was a reflection of public dissatisfaction with the government’s performance, for which he has to shoulder responsibility,” President Tsai declined to accept the resignation, instead insisting that Premier Lai stay on to continue the government’s reform efforts and ensure “political stability and continuity.”
Tsai’s third Cabinet reshuffle is in the works, most likely to occur within the first weeks of the new year. Three Cabinet ministers (environment, transportation and communications, and agriculture) tendered their resignations after the electoral beating, with Premier Lai formally accepting the resignations on Dec. 1 after convening a policy meeting with all ministers in the government to “review the government’s performance.”
Additionally, the DPP’s Central Executive Committee plans to hold a party chairmanship by-election on Jan. 6, 2019. Keelung City Mayor Lin Yu-chang, one of the few DPP mayors re-elected on Nov. 24, will serve as acting DPP chairperson until then.
The full ramifications of the Nov. 24 election have yet to be fully appreciated, although the Taiwanese political scene has already been majorly affected by the vote. While Taiwanese media have pointed to domestic issues and the “out-of-touch” impression of the Tsai Administration as the main drivers of the DPP’s thrashing, other opinions regarding the election outcome have raised concern over the fragility of Taiwan’s democracy, especially in the face of rising populism and possible meddling by mainland China.
Taiwan’s next island-wide election is slated to be held in 2020, which will elect the next President and Vice-President along with all 113 members of the Legislative Yuan.