by M. Bob Kao
ON SATURDAY, Taiwan held its first nine-in-one elections in which nine different types of positions were up for election throughout the country. The most visible and widely followed ones were the races for the mayors of the six special municipalities: Taipei, New Taipei, Taoyuan, Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung. The first four have been strongholds in the past for the KMT, whereas the latter two have been controlled by the opposition DPP whose leader Chen Shui-bian was able to break the monopoly on the presidency held by the KMT when he was elected into office in 2000 and again four years later.
The results of this election were shocking, to say the least. The KMT was only able to retain its power in New Taipei, which the heavily-favoured incumbent barely won with a margin of just over 1%, while losing the races in the other five municipalities. In Taipei, independent candidate Ko Wen-je took the mayoralty, and DPP candidates won in the other four cities even though only Tainan and Kaohsiung were assured and Taoyuan and Taichung were held by KMT incumbents.
All in all, this was a victory for the DPP just as much as it was a message to president and KMT chairperson Ma Ying-jeou whose approval rating dipped to 9.2% last year. Criticisms of Ma include his policies being overly pro-China and pro-business, his crisis management skills lacking during natural disasters and food scandals, and his general lack of understanding of the realities that the average citizen faces.
While the election results show that the KMT is losing influence on local politics, this is only the opening act to the much more important election in 2016 for the presidency and the national legislature. If the DPP does not win the presidency and a majority of the seats in the legislature in two years, this past Saturday’s results may be all for naught.
The DPP must seize the momentum and hit the ground running to start laying the groundwork for the 2016 elections in order to effectively address important human rights issues that President Chen failed to do in a presidency marred by the KMT-dominated legislature: same-sex marriage and capital punishment. The former is still not legal today, and executions are still carried out on four to six prisoners a year in recent years despite the government’s pledge to minimize its use.
Legalizing same-sex marriage and abolishing capital punishment were goals of President Chen and his vice president Annette Lu, both political prisoners under the KMT regime who had firm understandings of the value of human rights through their legal work and personal experiences. The Executive Yuan under President Chen proposed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in 2003, but it was never put up for a vote in the KMT-controlled legislature. A new DPP-backed bill is lingering in the legislature today in large part because it does not have the support of the KMT, including President Ma and his Minister of Justice.
The Ministry of Justice under President Chen placed a de facto moratorium on carrying out executions in 2006, but as the law was not changed due to lack of political capital, defendants are still being sentenced to death today. President Ma resumed executions in 2010 despite pushing for and signing legislation adhering Taiwan to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It must be noted that there was at least one voice opposing him in his administration, as he was only able to do so after he forced the resignation of an anti-capital punishment Minister of Justice who refused to sign off on execution orders. Twenty-six prisoners have been executed under Ma’s presidency to date.
President Ma has defended his policies by citing to opinion polls that appear to show that the public opposes same-sex marriage and supports capital punishment. Placing so much weight on public opinion to defend his position seems ironic, considering that his 9.2% approval rating should justify his resignation if opinion polls were truly so important to him.
It is unlikely any positive development will occur regarding same-sex marriage or capital punishment under a KMT presidency and KMT-dominated legislature. With the victory on Saturday, the DPP again has the chance to finish what President Chen started. Though DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen appears to be the non-KMT frontrunner for the presidency in 2016, other viable candidates, including independents, may and will rise up in the next couple of years to challenge her or run for seats in the legislature. Regardless of who runs in the elections in the end, the opposition must seize this momentum to place human rights at the top of the agenda in Taiwan again.