Taiwan’s Mid-term Elections: Tsai’s Policy Failures and KMT’s Revival
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By Xiaolin Duan

Taiwan’s Mid-term Elections: Tsai’s Policy Failures and KMT’s Revival

Dec. 01, 2018  |     |  0 comments

In the 2016 presidential election, Tsai Ing-wen defeated the KMT (KMT) candidate Eric Chu, became Chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and was democratically elected as the fourth President of Taiwan. The DPP also secured a majority in the Legislative Yuan and won the municipal elections in 4 out of 6 special municipalities.


The DPP then exploited its social, administrative and legislative resources to de-legitimatize the KMT by revealing the latter’s historic crimes committed during its authoritarian rule, nationalized the illegally-obtained party properties KMT had obtained during that time, and poured dirty water on the KMT’s mainland China policies. As these added to the internal conflicts among the different factions of the KMT, many analysts believed the KMT was gradually waning, and that future Taiwan politics would be dominated by the DPP and its allies in the pan-Green campaign.


Beijing had also become pessimistic about the cross-Strait exchanges and the possibility of peaceful unification in the future. It thus changed its Taiwan policies, and chose to engage Taiwanese directly. Rather than relying on the pan-Blue political parties — the KMT in particular, Beijing hoped that its favorable policies could gradually win the hearts and minds of ordinary Taiwanese and facilitate a peaceful unification in the future.


However, few analysts could have anticipated that things could change dramatically in the next two years. Tsai and the DPP quickly lost their popularity following a series of controversial policies in working-day and pension reforms, energy transition, homosexual marriage, transitional justice, and so on. The electricity shortage and air pollution aroused public dissatisfaction, while the DPP’s interference in the selection of the rector of the National University of Taiwan and in New Taipei’s mayoral elections by exploiting the KMT candidates’ possible historical misbehavior in the name of promoting transitional justice, disappointed many educated voters.

Table 1. Party Competition and Local Election in 2014 and 2018

* Nonpartisan candidate Ko Wen-je won the 2014 elections thanks to the DPP’s full support, while becoming relatively independent in the 2018 elections. 

Note: The table was made by the author based on open-access information.


In the recent local elections held in late November 2018, the KMT surprisingly revived thanks to the DPP’s policy failures. The KMT did not only successfully win 3 special municipalities in the mayoral elections, it also occupied more seats than the DPP in five special municipalities’ parliaments and even advanced with a simple majority in the parliaments of Taoyuan, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. In addition, KMT candidates won in 13 out of 16 counties’ and cities’ administrative chief elections, while the DPP only won in 3 (see Table 1). Compared with its triumph in the 2014 local elections, the DPP’s failure in 2018 was dramatic albeit not unexpected.


Along with the local elections, millions of Taiwanese also voted on 10 referendum questions including environment and energy transition, LGBT rights, and sports. Similarly, the nuke-free by 2025 and homosexual marriage policies that Tsai administration tried or preferred to implement did not win popular support. Rather, the KMT’s proposal to maintain the ban on the imports of agricultural products and food from areas affected by the nuclear leakage disaster in Japan was passed; another referendum aimed at repealing the DPP’s “Nuclear-free Taiwan by 2025” clauses also passed. In addition, Taiwan independence advocates supported a proposal to let Taiwan athletes participate in international sport competitions under the name “Taiwan” instead of “Chinese Taipei” — to highlight the status of Taiwan as an independent entity. This proposal was rejected.


Many agree that Tsai’s policy failures, rather than the recent performance of the KMT, were major reasons that led to the DPP’s failures and the revival of the KMT.


First, Tsai and DPP overpromised to many different interest groups and NGOs in order to win in the 2016 presidential elections, but then found it difficult if not impossible to balance competing interests and honor their promises. The laborers, environmental activists, and LGBT rights organizations felt betrayed. Young people expected to have a salary rise after Tsai took power, but found Tsai’s promise to be empty.


Second, DPP’s triumph in the 2016 Presidential, Legislative Yuan, and local elections made it overconfident about exploiting its advantages for the sake of its own political interests. For example, it exploited its majority in the Legislative Yuan and passed laws to reveal the historic crimes of the KMT during the period of authoritarian rule and nationalize the KMT’s party properties. It also gave government civil service jobs to its supporters, friends and relatives, even if they were sometimes incompetent. Wu Yinning, a young DPP supporter, became the director of the Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Corporation. She allegedly got the position due to the political connections of her father, Wu Cheng, the senior advisor of President Tsai. Wu became controversial for her high salary despite her incompetence and underperformance, which aroused grievances among the youth.


Third, along with the first two points, Tsai failed to prioritize economic development in her agenda. Rather, she spent a lot of resources on issues that promoted certain social values but which lacked social consensus. For instance, Tsai did not anticipate the backlash when trying to promote LGBT rights in a Confucian society in East Asia; Tsai promised to promote transitional justice and local reconciliation, but instead split the society; the judicial reforms Tsai herself advanced lacked substance in implementation. On key economic issues, Tsai’s achievements were limited. Her new “Go South” policies — developing trade and investment opportunities with Southeast countries to reduce Taiwan’s dependence on mainland China — achieved little; her forward-looking Infrastructure Development programs worth NTD 800 billion were widely perceived to be unnecessary or unhelpful for promoting Taiwan’s economy development.


These three factors together contributed to the DPP’s failures on the strategic level.


On the KMT side, Han Kuo-yu, the KMT candidate for the position of Kaohsiung Mayor, was the biggest hero. As a non-typical KMT politician, Han successfully took advantage of the new media and rode a wave of grassroots support. Rather than focusing on ideological struggles, Han’s campaign focused on economic underdevelopment and the poverty of his voters in Kaohsiung and proposed a pragmatic and realistic strategy to boost the local economy, which eventually won popular support in the election. In contrast, by labeling its political competitors as pro-China conspirators, the DPP tried but eventually failed to bring the public’s concerns back to the issues of the traditional China-Taiwan conflict and Taiwan independence/unification dilemma.


To sum up, the local elections generate at least three important implications for the future of Taiwan politics. It firstly means Taiwan is moving back to the two-party system with the revival and possible renewal of the KMT. Secondly, instead of sticking to the endless Taiwan independence/unification ideological debate, politicians should focus on increasing the general welfare of people. Last but not least, the recent twice rotations of power between the DPP and the KMT in Taiwan’s local elections mean more voters are less likely to stick to the pro-Blue or pro-Green ideologies when voting, but will instead select their preferred candidates based on their personal characteristics, performance and policy proposals. This is good news for the political development of Taiwan.


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