Cross Strait

Sighs for Tsai

Why voters punished Taiwan’s ruling party


Feeling down: Tsai Ing-wen

If you are looking for an insight into Taiwan’s midterm election results last weekend, nothing speaks louder than the victory of Han Kuo-yu. He became the first Kuomintang (KMT) candidate in 20 years to win the mayor’s office in Kaohsiung, a city that used to be known as “deep green”, i.e. a stronghold of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Han’s campaign distanced himself from the island’s sovereignty issue as and likewise from his own party, which favours closer economic ties with mainland China. Instead, the 61 year-old called himself the “bald vegetable vendor” and spent most of his time sitting down with grassroots voters, listening to their complaints and having a drink with them. In his final campaign rally in Kaohsiung last Friday it was claimed close to 200,000 supporters turned up as he vowed to “make Kaohsiung great again” in Trumpesque rhetoric.

“In the past 20 to 30 years, Kaohsiung people have led a difficult life in this city drowned by political ideology, full of pathos and grievances,” he told the rally. “If I was elected mayor, I would return the city to its former glory, when people were rich and young men were able to find a decent job.”

Until the early 2000s Kaohsiung was the world’s third biggest container port behind only Hong Kong and Singapore. But its economic growth has stalled over the years and it has slipped out of the top 10 global port rankings, overtaken by a number of mainland hubs.

To keep his promise, the Kaohsiung mayor-elect made it his first order of business to give Foxconn’s Terry Gou a call, hoping to convince the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturer, to open a plant in Taiwan’s second biggest city. Han’s team said the conversation lasted for three hours – but gave no further detail about the outcome.

The local elections were a crushing defeat for the DPP. With 22 mayoral and county magistrates seats available, the ruling party lost seven of the 13 seats it held. The KMT, meanwhile, managed to rebound to 15 from six, claiming nearly 49% of the votes while the DPP’s support slipped to 39%. After the setback, the island’s president Tsai Ing-wen resigned as DPP leader, raising the possibility that she would be challenged for her party’s nomination for the presidential election in two years’ time.

Since Tsai took office in 2016 cross-Straits relations have soured, as she has refused to affirm the so-called ‘1992 Consensus’, a tacit understanding Beijing and Taipei in which both sides acknowledge that they belong to “one China”.

Beijing has since ratcheted up the political pressure, leaving Taiwan more isolated internationally. The island now has diplomatic relations with only 17 countries, down from 22 in 2016.

The mainland has also choked off a number of economic benefits. The number of mainland Chinese tourists visiting the island, for example, has fallen drastically since 2016. Beijing has been pressuring international firms not to refer to the self-ruled island as ‘a country’ in their websites, or risk facing sanctions.

After the DPP’s defeat, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing paper Wen Wei Po wrote that the reason “people in Taiwan gave Tsai’s administration a big fail” is because she “maliciously aggravated animosities across the Straits”. The Global Times also offered a few scathing words for Tsai: “Fighting against the mainland is Taiwan’s dead-end road.”

Still, to say that the Taiwanese now want closer ties with Beijing or that the election was “China’s gain”, as some Western media has phrased it, is somewhat of an overstatement. While cross-Straits relations are always a contentious issue during Taiwan’s elections, local worries about wage growth and inflation also came into play. Taiwan’s economy under Tsai has been sluggish, despite her continued promises to revive growth.

Meanwhile, the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing announced this week that group tours to Kaohsiung would be resumed.

But the city’s new mayor should not get too carried away – the memory of the KMT’s own by-election setback a couple of years ago remains a warning of voter fickleness. At the time, the KMT had been getting chummy with Beijing but voters still punished the party because of the lacklustre economy…

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