KMT Stages Comeback in Local Elections
The opposition Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) won mayoral seats in three closely watched major constituencies – Kaohsiung, Taichung, and New Taipei City – in local elections held November 24. In Taipei City, incumbent independent Mayor Ko Wen-Je was reelected by a narrow 3,000-vote margin, prompting the runner-up in the three-way race, the KMT’s Ting Shou-chung, to file suit asking for the balloting to be invalidated due to alleged irregularities.
The election leaves the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in charge of only six of Taiwan’s 22 cities and counties, down from the previous 13. The KMT increased its share from six to 15.
KMT officials reportedly were them-selves surprised by the size of the party’s win, but many commentators described the results as less a KMT victory than a resounding DPP defeat. “The elections were a poll on how DPP central government is performing, and the voters found the government wanting,” concluded Bruce Jacobs, professor emeritus of Asian studies at Australia’s Monash University, who was in Taiwan to observe the elections. Jacobs, who in the past has generally been sympathetic to the DPP, faulted the party leadership for ham-handed implementation of revisions to working-hour legislation and for being too cautious in pushing social reforms such as same-sex marriage. Other analysts, however, suggested that the party might have devoted too much attention to social issues, while voters were more concerned with the state of the economy.
Nearly all expert observers cautioned that the election results should not be read as reflecting sentiment on cross-Strait relations, which did not figure prominently in these races.
Some New Faces, Some Re-elected Incumbents
The revival in the KMT’s fortunes was led by the strong performance of its mayoral candidate in Kaohsiung, Han Kuo-yu, who took nearly 54% of the vote in what had long been a DPP stronghold. Some observers speculated that voters had “DPP fatigue,” since that party had held the mayor’s office for 20 years. But the more common explanation for the outcome was the “Han Kuo-yu phenomenon.” Despite the three terms he served as a KMT legislator before becoming general manager of the Taiwan Agricultural Products Marketing Corp., Han successfully repackaged himself as an outsider to politics. Although his campaign speeches stressed lofty aspirations more than policy substance, his plainspoken rhetoric brought him a wide following, particularly among younger people. In contrast, the DPP candidate, Chen Chi-mai, was viewed as stiff and distant. Han has now established himself as a national figure who will have an influential role within his party.
In Taichung, Legislator Lu Shiow-yen upended incumbent mayor Lin Chia-lung’s bid for a second term. The worsening air quality in the Taichung area was considered to be a prime factor in the outcome. In New Taipei City, Hou You-yi, former head of the National Police Agency, kept the mayor’s office in KMT hands by defeating the DPP’s Su Tseng-chang. Su previously served in numerous high-level government positions, including the premiership from 2012 to 2014, but ran well behind in this campaign. Among the few bright spots for the DPP was Taoyuan, where Cheng Wen-tsan was elected handily to a second term.
Tsai Steps Down as DPP Chairperson
In line with traditional Taiwanese political expectations, President Tsai Ing-wen assumed responsibility for her party’s electoral setback by announcing her resignation as chair of the DPP. Also submitting resignations were Premier Lai Ching-te and Presidential Office Secretary-General Chen Chu, but Tsai asked them to continue in their posts. Keelung Mayor Lin You-chang, who won reelection in the November balloting, will serve as interim party chair until a new leader is elected next year. Meeting with the party’s Central Standing Committee, Tsai apologized for the DPP’s “disappointing” showing and pledged to provide more decisive leader-ship going forward.
The next presidential election is only 15 months away, in March 2020. Although KMT supporters were encouraged by the election results to hope to regain the presidency and a legislative majority in 2020, observers noted that Taiwan’s national elections are usually decided on very different issues from local contests.
Election Meddling by Beijing Alleged
A few weeks before the balloting, Premier Lai reported at an inter-ministerial meeting at the Executive Yuan that China was attempting to influence the election by spreading disinformation through social media, cyberattacks, and providing financial support to certain candidates. The Director-General of the National Security Bureau made a similar report to two Legislative Yuan committees. During a visit to Taiwan, the U.S.-based chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, James Moriarty, referred to the dangerous “attempts by external powers” to disseminate false information to affect the elections.
TSMC’S Chang Represents Taiwan at APEC Summit
Choosing to emphasize Taiwan’s high-tech prowess, President Tsai selected Morris Chang, the iconic founder and retired chairman of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), to represent her at the 2019 leadership summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, held in mid-November in Papua New Guinea. On the sidelines of the meeting, the 87-year-old Chang met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who was representing President Donald Trump at the annual gathering. He also reported having “friendly and candid” interactions with about a dozen leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Despite Taiwan’s full membership in APEC, China’s opposition has prevented the president of Taiwan from attending the meeting him or herself.