A Post-Mortem of Nine-in-One Elections

by Brian Hioe

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Photo Credit: AP

IT WOULD SEEM the tides of Taiwanese electoral politics are turning, or are they? The past victory of opposition forces over the KMT in the nine-in-one elections held last Saturday came as a surprise, with independent candidate Ko Wen-Je triumphing over KMT candidate Sean Lien in vying for the position of Taipei mayor.

But while the contest between Ko and Lien for Taipei had overshadowed other mayoral elections and county elections, the DPP also took special municipalities of Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung, Taoyuan, and nine other counties or cities, with a total of 13 out of 22. The KMT had previously controlled 14 out of Taiwan’s 22 counties and cities, but was left with 6 after the election. Perhaps most surprising was that the DPP victory in the traditionally pan-Blue north, with the oust of longtime KMT mayor Jason Hu in Taichung, putting an end to his reign of the last thirteen years, and the DPP victory in Taoyuan, newly incorporated as a municipal center rather than a county, which was expected to swing blue. The DPP likewise led in the popular vote, winning 47% of the popular vote to the KMT’s 41%.

Sunflower Seeds in Bloom?

AS THE LARGEST local elections held in Taiwanese history and the first set of elections held after the unprecedented Sunflower Movement this past spring, some have pointed to the current victory of opposition forces as a sign that the shift in Taiwan’s political paradigm brought about by the Sunflower Movement has finally taken root. What political commentators were critical of was that the Sunflower Movement placed itself at a remove from electoral politics in eschewing direct political participation. While Sunflower Movement participants were critical of both electoral camps, both Blue and Green, what commentators feared was that the dissatisfaction with electoral politics by Sunflower participants would lead to them giving up on electoral politics altogether, ceding the vote to the KMT.

Ma Ying-jeou President Ma Ying-Jeou, popularly a target of the Sunflower Movement, casting his vote during nine-in-one elections. Photo credit: AP Photo/Central News Agency, Pool

Nevertheless, as seen during the election and in the round of celebrations that ensued afterwards, the popular consensus of Taiwanese civil society indicates that they were generally supportive of opposition forces and were, in fact, participants in initiatives to encourage people to vote, to remove or prevent KMT candidates from attaining power, to monitor voting for fairness, and to provide information on the elections for both Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese as Indie Lord’s Livestream coverage of the elections.

The popular consensus of Taiwanese civil society in nine-in-one elections, as those behind the Sunflower Movement, was perhaps evidenced most strongly in the Ko campaign in Taipei and the large-scale rally in support of Ko entitled “Hug for Taipei,” a carnival-like rally that drew 200,000. Ko ran an untraditional campaign in running as an independent pan-Green candidate rather than a DPP member, which won over great support from the Taiwanese civil society. As a result, Ko’s victory was taken as the victory of Taiwanese civil society instead of any particular party. Likewise, Ko’s reaction to victory was to continue to emphasize his message of triumphing over ideological boundaries in pursuit of transparent governance and pursuit of the public interest.

The defeat of the KMT also led to resignation of Premier Jiang Yi-Huah, popularly a target of Sunflower Movement activists because he was seen as the architect of the violent suppression of Sunflower Movement activists on March 23rd during the controversial attempt to occupy the Executive Yuan, followed by the resignation of President Ma from his role as KMT chairman. As it is a traditional in Taiwanese politics for party officials to resign in order to take responsibility for electoral defeats, Jiang and Ma’s resignation was therefore to take responsibility for the KMT’s electoral defeat. But Sunflower activists were also critical of Jiang Yi-Huah’s resignation as something other than a resolution for the actions of the KMT government during the Sunflower Movement, but rather an easy way out. Along these lines, Ma’s resignation was also seen as pointing more broadly to the absurdity of elements of Taiwan’s electoral party system, seeing as even critics of Ma during the Sunflower Movement would acknowledge that the KMT defeat in the past election was a product of more than just Ma’s own personal failures.

A Victory for Civil Society or a Victory for the DPP?

WE CAN VIEW past nine-in-one elections as the culmination of a historic set of events that ended as a victory for Taiwanese civil society, and, more or less, for the DPP. But what may be more important to note is that they were not taken as such.

Though the message of Ko Wen-Je’s candidacy was an appeal to transcend ideological boundaries of Blue and Green and his campaign touted his independent status, of course, the fact was and remains that Ko ran as a candidate of the pan-Green camp because of the need of the resources of the pan-Green alliance in order to conduct a successful campaign in Taipei. Where Taipei is concerned, we are still far from independent candidates who are able to run entirely outside of both pan-Green and pan-Blue camps. Of course, Ko’s victory sets a precedent which may allow for such candidates in the future.

p01-141129-tsaiDPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-Wen and others stumping for DPP candidate for Taichung mayorship, Lin Chia-lung, on the day of nine-in-one elections. Lin was later victorious. Photo credit: Taipei Times

Yet that the emphasis in news media has been upon a DPP victory or the victory of pan-Green across Taiwan leads us to that the ideological boundaries across Taiwan have not been breached. We might point to polarization between pan-Green and pan-Blue in the race up until presidential elections in 2016. In preparation for 2016 presidential elections, with the current set of victories under its belt, the DPP is now primed to mount a strong campaign—if it can manage to do so. On the other side of the political spectrum, the KMT has now been put on the defensive, although Sean Lien’s supporters have touted that his loss as mayor frees him up to run for president in 2016.

Indeed, we might in fact say that the ball in the DPP’s court now. After being ousted from the political center for so long, the DPP now has a chance to decisively reestablish itself as an effective political party and to rehabilitate an image which took no small amount of taint in past years. In doing so, the DPP could likely stem some of the mass distrust of government and electoral politics from the public that comes from the view that both parties, DPP and KMT alike, were corrupt.

Whither the KMT?

ON THE OTHER HAND, after Lien’s poorly run campaign, the unpopularity of President Ma in recent years, and the Sunflower Movement, in retrospect, it is clear that the KMT was poised to take a beating in past elections. There are two diverging responses can be predicted from the KMT leadership.

For more moderate elements among the leadership, the recent defeats of the KMT will provoke some soul-searching as to why KMT fails to appeal and thus it may restrategize toward a renewed emphasis on populist appeals. It is not impossible that the KMT may seek to co-opt the discourse of transcending ideological boundaries in going “beyond blue and green”. Of course, the structure of the KMT makes enforces party discipline in such fashion as to lead its candidates to be deeply beholden to party structure. However, it is true that voters have sometimes picked KMT candidates who seem more moderate because of their wariness of “deep Green” candidates, a means by which the discourse of going “beyond blue and green” can also serve the needs of the KMT.

EB29PA12H_2014資料照片_copy1KMT candidate for Taipei mayorship Sean Lien apologizing to supporters after defeat. Photo credit: Chen Chen-tang

On the other hand, for KMT hardliners amongst the leadership, the recent defeats will probably provoke the opposite response. KMT hardliners, indeed, as Sean Lien’s father and senior KMT powerbroker Lien Chan, have only illustrated how out of step they are with the times in regards to provocative public statements made as Lien Chan’s accusation that Ko was descended from “Han traitors” in an apparent throwback to racial tensions dating back decades. Apart from illustrating that the racialized worldview of Taiwan’s ethnic and sub-ethnic distinctions as well as the political identification of Taiwan with the Chinese Han race has not faded from the inner sanctums of the KMT, we can only expect KMT hardliners to behave in a more rabid fashion in the future. Namely, for those already out of step with the times, the shock of defeat will only provoke more frenzied responses, rather than pouring cold water onto their antiquated worldview.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely at this time that any division between KMT moderates and hardliners will lead to a division amongst the KMT leadership will be significant enough within the party to lead to any splits. The party cohesion of the KMT is far from broken. That this would damage the image of the KMT in the public is possible.

But of greater significance, in a consideration of generally moderate members of the public who are supporters of the KMT—still a sizable constituency of the public that must be accounted for—the KMT defeat has in fact prompted some consideration of the direction of future Taiwanese politics. It may be ironic to note that KMT hardliners amongst the general public were more attentive to the Sunflower Movement and the shifting tides of Taiwanese politics than KMT moderates who just vote Blue year after year but may not necessarily pay close attention to politics, let alone the Sunflower Movement. As a result, the fact that what were normally KMT strongholds shifted from Blue to Green may be a wake up call for these people and lead to them becoming more active in politics. This may be more troublesome.

International Outlook and Future Prospects

WHERE EVALUATIONS of Taiwan’s local elections from abroad are concerned, little attention was paid during campaign season itself. Attention was only paid after elections had already happened and the focus was upon what local elections boded for 2016 presidential elections and relations with China. Indeed, this is perhaps not incorrect, in regards to that it is 2016 presidential elections will set the tone for future Taiwan-China relations rather than the recently past set of elections—even if it is also clear that China was paying attention to recent elections in wariness of the future. Certainly, China’s ambitions towards Taiwan have not taken any decisive blow from past elections, but this recently past set of elections may be an indicator of the future.

Taiwan ElectionsKo supporters celebrating victory last Saturday. Photo credit: Wally Santana/AP Photos

More significant is, as Wen-Ti Sung argues at Thinking Taiwan, that the past set of elections may have indicate a new parity achieved between DPP and KMT, although one must also emphasize that KMT and DPP continue to be uneven whereas party resources, personnel, and reach is concerned. There are aspects in which the DPP’s struggle continues to be an uphill one.

However, to what extent has past elections been a victory for Taiwanese civil society? In rejection of the view that the best interests of Taiwanese civil society would be to simply vote DPP, the current set of victories only goes so far. With victorious DPP candidates, Taiwanese civil society will find itself in the position of leveraging against them for in order to fight for its interests—certainly, less so than with the KMT, but the DPP is, of course, a political party, which has its own political interests that may not necessarily accord with those of the public. Even where Ko Wen-Je himself is concerned, Ko has been less than progressive on issues of gender and sexuality in regards to past public statements; moreover, it remains to be seen how the policies he has set out will stand once he is in office.

But if past elections have been a victory, what remains is to demand more from all quarters. It is not merely enough to be satisfied with current set of circumstances. Only then will the demands of the Sunflower Movement stand any chance of realization.