Taiwan’s political landscape changes overnight | Midterm election results analysis | SupChina

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Taiwan’s political landscape changes overnight

Taiwan’s "midterms" give the ruling DPP a slap in the face and disappoint LGBT activists.

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.

Chris Taylor

Chris Taylor is a writer based in Bangkok. He has been a guidebook writer and a travel writer, and has written commentary and reporting for many publications worldwide, including the Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review, Salon, Time, the South China Morning Post, The Age, and the Sydney Morning Herald.


  1. J Ixi Lee Reply

    Nice. I was really disappointed reading from 20 something major news outlets from Europe and both sides of the Pacific on my Google News feed yesterday. But for someone who’s not based in Taiwan I think it’s relatively impressive that you’re the only journalist who spent more time doing the homework on this topic.

    The result of this election in Taipei is a bit more complex so I’m waiting for Mayor Ko to have a final say on this in the future. Of course, his words will be based on studies by local and international political scientists, statisticians, sociologists, etc.

  2. Richard Yu-Hsing Chen Reply

    Yilan has gone blue occasionally in the past, but hey, I guess nominating the guy that literally crashed the funeral of Ma Yin Jeou mom’s funeral was not a great idea.

    Although this result is surprisingish in the context of if you thought about this say 12 months ago, something along this line of result was pretty obvious as the campaigns unfolded especially towards the later half.

    The context of Han’s victory in terms of most fundamental shift is probably the agricultural voters, having long been categorized as “deep green” types it seems obvious that the combination of Han Guo Yu’s ouster from Taipei Farmer’s Market with dubious rational by the DPP combined with them installing in his stead, a thoroughly incompetent replacement who seem to confirm every suspected stereotype of the “woke” youngsters of the green camp. And the DPP’s agricultural vice minister apparently not even knowing how many times you can harvest cabbages in a year, a lot of most ridiculous shifts came from these folks, hence people thought Han would be a heavy underdog in the county area of Kaoshiung but he actually won it slightly. Meanwhile the city area was never really THAT green. The DPP won two of the 5 races in that supposed 20 years reign by a hair (and with dubious last day events.)

    But there is significant evidence that traditional lines of division is shifting on party support, and this goes both ways, as the DPP did considerably better in the North given their overall abysmal results, they managed to keep almost all their districts in northern Taiwan.

    In Kaoshuing though the results were simply staggering given that not only did Han win the governor, but the KMT also scored a crushing victory in the council. and even the greenest bastion such as Tainan the DPP only won by a relatively small margin and failed to win an outright majority in the council.

    Another pretty darn surprising victory is Yunlin, where the KMT candidate is from the local faction Zhang family whose head was just jailed for corruption stuff, but his sister won the race handily, in no small part because of Han’s connection to the area.

    The implicated fall out is significant, if the KMT doesn’t screw up their nomination too badly it seems like Tsai is going to be the first elected ROC Prez to fail to win a second term, as the vote for that is a mere 14 months away. and with the party reeling it seems very unlikely they could re organize quickly enough. But then again, Taiwan’s election can be quite full of surprises

  3. J. Reply

    Shen Fu-Hsiung created a Cartesian coordinate posted on his Facebook which identified (certain demographic) DPP base on a further end of the conservative scale than the KMT conservatives. If Tsai tries to consolidate her base she might deepen her ties with Formosa Alliance and make void some of the reforms, or perhaps be more inclusive and listen earnestly to the people outside the party.

    The DPP conservatives generally are against marriage equality; they’re pro-capital punishment, pro-crimianlisation of adultery, and against working-pay reform implemented by the government (generally considered badly thought-out anyway). These are just some of the things that may overlap with any conservatives. Some conservatives also have ties to Brian Brown of NOM from the US, but his visit to Taiwan and the design of the ballot in the latest referendum weren’t considered a foreign interference by the government.

    Last year many people thought the government was repeating the numerous mistakes of the KMT, and that they’d dug themselves a large pit only two years in. The unpopularity sprouted from various events and incidents, for example: Smear campaigns (especially against Mayor Ko which resulted in alienating the young and the independents), inserting unqualified people into decision making roles, sub-par crisis management of power and natural disasters, broken promise in judicial reform & various other reforms, astronomical spending on projects, and more.

    If so many ordinary citizens can see that the pit is almost as big as the one in Changping but government officials can’t or just won’t front up, then people will begin to question really hard: What exactly are the kind of people in power that are representing us and our values in a democracy?

    In Taiwan many people today demand institutional reforms and the integrity of government (+ more) and value them equally as important if not more important than the improvement of the living standards and the progression of civil liberties. So the usual report of binary unification/independence rhetoric and economic numbers that may take the workload out of some reporters, fortunately, aren’t the only two things that a large portion of population or swing voters use to evaluate whom to vote. Note that all party members are less than 5% of population.

    About Han: If the DDP hadn’t forced a replacement of Han with Princess Wu, Han would still be in TAPMC. Since Han has built a solid reputation within TAPMC and gained trust with the people he worked with in KCFA, the KCFA decided to support him in the Kaohsiung mayoral election.

    Mayor Ko: The mayor has strong followers from under 40s and the independents outside Taipei. His blunders are often magnified with malicious political intend. If the DPP’s smear campaign doesn’t end it could force him to run early for president in 2020.

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