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Lauren Dickey is a research associate for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party experienced an unprecedented electoral defeat last Saturday, the “biggest defeat since 1949,” according to local media. Nearly 20,000 candidates ran for 11,130 political offices in Taiwan, with 18.5 million eligible voters casting ballots for nine levels of government across the island. Beyond the sheer scope of holding nine different elections on one single day, the electoral outcome sends a resounding signal to Beijing. After the spring Sunflower Movement protesting the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with mainland China, and the ongoing Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, these elections offered an opportunity for many voters to voice discontent with the pro-China, pro-business policies of the ruling KMT party.
Public discontent with the KMT and President Ma Ying-jeou has provided an opportunity for the opposition Democratic Progress Party (DPP) to fortify its constituent base, a significant political development as Taiwan’s presidential elections approach in 2016. With public approval ratings of President Ma hovering around 15 percent, DPP campaign efforts focused on “winning back Taiwan” beginning with local elections. Based on the voting outcomes, the DPP is off to a strong start.
After the weekend local elections, areas with long histories of voting for the KMT have now witnessed a shift to the DPP, with the KMT retaining only six of the twenty-two city, county, and municipal governments in Taiwan. Arguably the most important position, the Taipei mayoral seat, shifted into the hands of an independent, Ko Wen-je. Mr. Ko, who has promised to be a mayor of all Taiwanese citizens, won the support of the pan-green camp—the DPP, Taiwan Solidarity Union, and People First Party—earlier in his campaign with what some perceive to be an openly pro-independence policy platform.
As the KMT surveys the aftermath of the elections, a few heads of high-ranking officials are likely to roll. Taiwan’s Premier Jiang Yi-huah resigned within hours of the KMT’s devastating losses at the polls; President Ma bowed out from chairmanship of the KMT a few days later amid mounting public pressure, expressing a willingness “to shoulder most of the responsibility.” With the premier’s resignation, the cabinet also steps down, as the island awaits announcement of a new premier, new ministerial appointments, and a new KMT chairperson to get the incumbent party back on its feet again.
While these newly elected officials will not assume national offices—and the composition of the national government will not change—implications for Taiwanese domestic politics and cross-strait relations linger simply because of the scale of the DPP’s win in the local elections. The defeat suffered by the KMT reflects voter dissatisfaction over not only the government’s handling of food safety scandals, low wages, and the widening wealth gap, but also pro-China policy. Because Beijing is used to progress in rapprochement under KMT leadership at the national level, DPP victories at the local level are certainly disheartening to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Beijing must now make a choice: move forward with military posturing or economic pressure to coerce Taiwan further into its sphere of influence; continue economic engagement with the ruling KMT government as a stepping stone toward reunification; attempt to work with the DPP at the local level; or, support a continuation of the status quo.
Beijing wants to avoid any actions or policies that would drive Taiwan toward a formal declaration of independence. From the perspective of the Chinese leadership, a Taiwan that is less welcoming of Beijing’s economic and trade overtures or actively voicing interest in international involvement is one that is vying for an identity separate from mainland China. For Beijing to keep the “renegade province” within its sphere of influence, Chinese leaders will need to step up subtler forms of engagement with the Taiwanese people: incentives targeting businessmen, academics, students, and local leaders may prove far more effective than military posturing or economic coercion. As Beijing adapts to a newly pan-green DPP domestic political environment on Taiwan, Xi and his colleagues will remain diligent in pursuit of overarching political and national goals vis-à-vis Taiwan.
The impact of Taiwan’s local elections, and its utility as a barometer for both the two remaining Ma Ying-jeou years, as well as the 2016 presidential elections, should not be understated. While Xi Jinping may well be occupied with an already full foreign policy agenda and a plethora of domestic challenges, Beijing cannot afford to ignore the political changes on Taiwan. Every Taiwan president since 1996 has been a former mayor of Taipei; and mainland China will surely be watching DPP leadership in other previously KMT bastions elsewhere on the island. Beijing would benefit from learning to work with the DPP, since now more than ever before, a DPP presidency in 2016 is increasingly probable.