Taiwan’s political landscape changes overnight

Foreign Affairs

On Saturday, the people of Taiwan headed to the polls to cast ballots for nearly 11,000 officials, in local elections — think mid-terms — and essentially repainted the map of Taiwan blue from green, or from ruling party Democratic Progressive Party (民進黨 mínjìndǎng), which is broadly pro-independence, to the more China-friendly Nationalist Party, or Kuomindang (國民黨 guómíndǎng).

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) resigned as DPP party chairperson at around 9:15 p.m. Taiwan time. Rumors were circulating that her cabinet would follow suit, after a series of decisive electoral defeats island-wide.

Taiwan’s citizens voted for the mayors of the six special municipalities of Taipei, New Taipei, Taoyuan, Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung. They also voted for 13 county commissioners, some 900 councilors, 56 indigenous district representatives, nearly 2,300 local representatives and more than 7,700 borough wardens (里長 lǐzhǎng).

The results were a slap in the face for the ruling DPP, which was defeated in two of six key special municipalities and failed to make even a minor dent in the vote for Taipei mayor, where the vote between incumbent and independent Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲 Kē Wénzhé) and KMT candidate Ting Shou-chung (丁守中 Dīng Shǒuzhōng) was too close to call, although Ting was up by approximately 500 votes at the time of writing. UPDATE: Ko won the recount, beating Ting by 3,254 votes, and will remain as Taipei’s mayor.

Ko lost the support of the DPP in mid-2017, largely due to saying of Taiwan and China that “both sides are of one family” in a city forum in Shanghai.

To put this feast of surprises into broader context, they took place amid widespread discontent with the Taiwan establishment. Complaints about the DPP from young and progressive voters include inaction on practical issues such as gay marriage and raising the minimum wage and from older voters about controversial pension reforms for civil servants.

To the surprise of almost all Taiwan watchers, this has played into the hands of the KMT, who were almost universally regarded as having failed to regroup after a disastrous across-the-board defeat in the 2016 general elections.

The elections provided upsets galore, but nowhere more than in the central city and county of Taichung, which was a wipeout for the DPP, with incumbent DPP mayor Lin Chialong (林佳龍 Lín Jiālóng) conceding to KMT candidate Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕 Lú Xiùyàn) shortly after 8 p.m. Taiwan time. Only slightly less surprising was the DPP defeat in the southern city of Kaohsiung and even in the longtime DPP stronghold Yilan County on the east coast.

The “Han Phenomenon”

All eyes had been on Kaohsiung, one of Taiwan’s six “special municipalities,” where KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜 Hán Guóyú), who was next to unknown months ago, surged in Taiwan’s notoriously unreliable polls in recent months on the back of an improbable social media campaign. His popularity is being referred as the “Han Wave” or the “Han Phenomenon,” and it draws much on his perceived similarities to plain-speaking Taipei Mayor Ko, another non-career politician.

Ahead of the elections, many Taiwanese were skeptical that Han’s support was coming from his electorate, amid accusations of Chinese meddling, as reported by SupChina recently and along with the usual accusations of vote buying that plague Taiwan elections.

“How many of these social media people praising Han are actually in Kaohsiung?” a Taipei voter surnamed Ku asked SupChina. “I think a lot of them are not even in Taiwan.”

All the same, Han defied many local expectations and won over a city and county that has long been “deep green” (深綠 shēn lǜ), or staunchly pro-Taiwan. It has been ruled by the DPP for 20 years. But that did not stop Han from pulling off the miraculous and taking the special municipality. Even more remarkable is that Han won landslide victories in fiercely deep-green townships in Kaohsiung County.

This is astounding because Kaohsiung played a major role in the emergence of opposition (黨外 dǎngwài) politics during the KMT era from 1949 to 2000. It was the scene of the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident (高雄事件 gāoxióng shìjiàn), a seminal event in the evolution of Taiwan democratic politics, when protests coinciding with Human Rights’ day and instigated by the editors of Formosa Magazine (美麗島雜誌 měilìdǎo zázhì) turned violent. The KMT used the incident to clamp down on all opposition politicians, and the so-called Kaohsiung Eight were tried in a military court. Their jail terms ranged from 12 years to life imprisonment.

The results in New Taipei City were less surprising. Everybody thought it likely that KMT candidate Hou You-yi (侯友宜Hóu Yǒuyí) would defeat DPP New Taipei City mayoral candidate Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌 Sū Zhēnchāng). He did. The KMT already held New Taipei City under Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫 Zhū Lìlún), who won by a slim margin in the 2014 local election in Taiwan’s largest municipal district by population.

But, to return to Kaohsiung, the loss of which combined with the loss of Taichung led to Tsai’s resigination as DPP chairperson, who is Han Kuo-yu?

The so-called “Han phenomenon” has baffled even Taiwan media, which is well acculturated to the unexpected in local politics. He has leveraged himself as a straight-talking non-career politician, but as has been widely reported in Taiwan, he was a KMT member of the of the Legislative Yuan (立法院Lìfǎyuàn) from 1993 to 2002. In 1993, he assaulted future president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁 Chén Shuǐbiǎn), hospitalizing him for three days.

Tired of blue-green politics

Among other allegations against Han are his connections with the Tiandao League (天道盟 tiāndào méng), a triad alliance the Taiwan Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau describes as a “violent criminal group,” and his ties to the hardcore Chinese nationalist Huang Fu-hsing (黃復興 Huáng Fùxīng) faction of the KMT.

As one avowedly pro-DPP voter aged 22 and surnamed Lee told SupChina: “Many people in our generation are tired of the blue-green politics and that leaves the election open to Trump-style populist politicians.”

Inevitably these elections are being labeled as “a barometer of public opinion about the performance of the DPP,” and even about Taiwan’s relations with China. The former is the case to a certain extent — though a reshuffle of the DPP leadership might shift the party’s fortunes ahead of 2020.

But generally speaking, these elections speak to the fact that the KMT have been regrouping far more effectively than most Taiwan observers realized, forcing Tsai of the DPP to resign as chairperson of the party amid the expected resignation of her cabinet. What this means longer term is uncertain, but it does undoubtedly raise the specter of her becoming the first elected one-term president of Taiwan.

In another blow to Tsai and the progressives and youth voters who brought her to power, at the time of writing, Taiwan television was broadcasting that Taiwanese had overwhelmingly voted against the legalization of gay marriage under the civil code, in a complex combination of five referenda on the subject.

Meanwhile, it should be remembered that local elections in Taiwan are almost inevitably fought over very local issues, and even if the modern historical blue-green divide appears to be splintering, more surprises should be expected in the 2020 presidential elections, and the latest election results do not bode well for the DPP, but do not necessarily sound a death knell.