On December 2, CDDRL Research Associate Kharis Templeman and Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) Distinguished Fellow Thomas Fingar spoke about Taiwan’s recent local elections, which were a major defeat for the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and President Ma Ying-jeou. They were joined by Dennis Weng, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Wesleyan University, and Winnie Lin, a Stanford junior and research assistant for the Taiwan Democracy Project. The event was hosted by the Taiwan Democracy Project at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
Templeman opened the roundtable by describing the “historic nature” of the November 29th elections. For the first time, all elected local officials in Taiwan from the mayor of Taipei down to rural village leaders - more than 11,000 positions in total - were chosen at the same time. In the highest-profile votes for mayors and county executives, the KMT suffered a drubbing. The ruling party's loss to an independent in Taipei was widely anticipated, but KMT candidates in central and southern Taiwan also were defeated badly in races that were expected to be competitive, and several more were upset in former party strongholds in northern counties and cities. The main beneficiary of the ruling party's troubles was the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which picked up seven local executive seats and made significant gains in local councils as well.
According to Templeman, the election results were clearly tied to the ruling party’s poor image. President Ma, who until the election loss doubled as the KMT party chairman, had approval ratings in the teens for much of the past two years, and he struggled to win support for his policy initiatives even from members of his own party caucus in the legislature. The central government was also beset by a series of crises in recent months, including student-led protests against a trade agreement with China, a pipeline explosion in the southern city of Kaohsiung, and a wide-ranging food quality scandal. The resulting damage to the KMT party brand "nationalized" the elections and led to a consistent swing in support away from the party across races that normally turn on more local issues.
Weng took on the question of why pre-election polls were so dramatically wrong in several races. Election telephone polls in Taiwan are taken quite frequently and usually provide reliable forecasts of election outcomes, yet in this election they were sometimes off by 20 points or more. Weng highlighted the youth vote as a possible explanation: Voters under 40 were significantly more anti-KMT than other generations and might have turned out at a higher rate than expected. Because young voters are disproportionately likely to have cell phones and not land lines, telephone polls have a hard time capturing a representative sample of this subset of the electorate. In the past, these problems were muted, but they might have been large enough in this election to throw off the polls.
Lin, a Taiwanese citizen who returned to Taipei to vote, then gave the audience a first-hand account of the political currents in Taiwan during the days around the election. The high-profile Taipei mayor’s race stood out both for the fact that the KMT’s main opponent was an independent, Ko Wen-je, rather than an official nominee of the DPP, and for Ko’s unconventional campaign strategy. Ko produced no television ads and eschewed buying billboard ads or producing campaign flags, instead directing much of his campaign efforts to online outreach and playing up his "non-partisan" background. Lin emphasized the effectiveness of this social networking strategy in raising interest and support among her own friends and colleagues.
The panel concluded with a look at the impact the election results might have on cross-Strait relations. Fingar, a former State Department official and past chairman of the National Intelligence Council, suggested that authorities in Beijing were “disappointed, but not surprised” by the election results, which greatly strengthened the position of the pro-independence DPP. From past experience, Beijing has learned not to try to influence the outcome of elections in Taiwan, and despite its historical antipathy toward the DPP, it is prepared to deal with the party's representatives and even a potential DPP presidential administration in 2016 as "legitimate political actors" in cross-Strait relations. Chinese policy towards Taiwan is unlikely to be affected much in the short run by the KMT’s defeat, although Beijing might also interpret the result as a signal that Taiwanese voters have not yet gotten enough economic gains out of the cross-Strait relationship. More troubling from the Chinese leadership's perspective is that the vote was held at all: Taiwan's local polls reinforce that elections are "not ill-suited for all people who speak Chinese,” and the kinds of practical complaints about governance and corruption that contributed to the KMT’s defeat are also pervasive in mainland China.