Ruling party faces crushing defeat in Taiwan election, could hit midlife crisis

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President Tsai Ing-wen addresses the media at the headquarters of Democratic Progressive Party following the ruling’s crushing defeat in the “nine-in-one” elections on Nov. 24.

TAIPEI (The China Post) — The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered a crushing defeat in the “nine-in-one” elections on Nov. 24, losing seven of the 13 cities and counties it previously held — the special municipalities of Taichung and Kaohsiung, as well as Chiayi City, Yilan, Yunlin, Changhua and Penghu counties.

The DPP is left with the special municipalities of Taoyuan and Tainan, Keelung and Hsinchu cities, and Chiayi and Pingtung counties in a major lesson of democracy that highlights the public’s strong discontent with the recent reform of the pension system, growing impatience with Taiwan economy and frustration at the government’s China policy.

“Facing all sorts of challenges at home and from abroad, insisting on doing the right thing was like walking on a path thickly sown with thorns that was bound to leave us with wounds,” President Tsai Ing-wen told the media at the DPP headquarters. “But I would like to say to all DPP comrades and supporters, we have to stick to doing what is right.”

Bad Timing, Wrong Issues

The president tried for sure to put a brave face on the major election defeat, stressing that her administration is moving in “the right direction” with several major reforms launched over the past two years. But Taiwan voters have clearly set an even higher standard for the ruling party.

The Saturday vote could be seen as a prelude to the 2020 presidential and legislative elections slated in about 14 months – a deadline too close to expect any major reshuffle from the ruling party’s stance on thorny issues, ranging from the country’s energy policy to the government’s attitude towards China.

Tsai has repeatedly played the China card to rally people behind the DPP since she came into power in May 2016; but she was less fortunate this time. She denounced the Chinese government’s alleged attempts to meddle in the elections and stressed the importance of countering China’s increasingly aggressive stance on Taiwan in a move to boost her reform agenda and pave the way for her reelection.

Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, 61, thanks supporters after defeating his main rival, the DPP candidate, Chen Chi-mai, in the “nine-in-one” elections on Nov. 24..

In the run-up to the Kaohsiung election, however, the ruling party failed to convince voters that China’s alleged influence on social media platforms was part of a “disinformation campaign” responsible for the unexpected surge in the popularity of the candidate from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), Han Kuo-yu.

Han, 61, clearly defeated his main rival, the DPP candidate, Chen Chi-mai, on a platform of economic development for the port city which he openly described as “old and poor.” Declaring his victory in front of a massive crowd of supporters, Han, also pledged to spare no efforts to address the air pollution situation in Kaohsiung – one of the residents’ main concerns.

Ahead of the election, however, the president called on Taiwan expatriates to return home and cast their ballots in the local election, stressing that “the whole world is watching whether Taiwan’s people will vote for a China-leaning party or chose one that is committed to democracy and human rights.” Kaohsiung people still made a well-considered decision and elected a new mayor who has never concealed his support for the “1992 Consensus.”

A String of Cumbersome Referendums

With the “nine-in-one” elections seen as midterm elections, the ruling party is now seen as unable to address Taiwan people’s most pressing issues. This was the conclusion reached earlier last night by Premier Lai Ching-te who tendered his resignation as head of Taiwan’s executive branch of government.

Tsai refused to accept his resignation to “maintain continuity in government policies” and potentially aim for a more deliberate and carefully thought-out action during a future Cabinet reshuffle. The president still announced her intention to resign as DPP chairwoman to take responsibility for the ruling party’s crushing defeat and the poorly organized, ten referendums held alongside the election.

Among other highlights, Taiwan people voted against the proposal to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics under the name “Taiwan” instead of “Chinese Taipei.” The proposal was voted down by a roughly 55-45 percent margin, with around 10.5 million valid votes counted in the early hours of Sunday.

Although many voters may have been sympathetic to the idea of changing the awkward “Chinese Taipei” moniker, the many voters who opposed the measure, including renowned Taiwanese Olympian Chi Cheng, may have felt that the application process could have had negative consequences rather than giving Taiwan more positive international recognition.

A doodle on Google Taiwan’s homepage announces the upcoming “nine-in-one” elections on Nov. 24.

Japan also expressed regret that Taiwan’s public voted on Saturday to back a referendum to maintain the ban on imports of agricultural products and food from areas in Japan affected by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster on March 11, 2011. Officials at the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, the organization that represents the interests of Japan in Taiwan, told the Central News Agency of their disappointment at the results of the referendum.

But even more worrisome, three referendums initiated by anti-LGBT groups eventually passed, while two put forward by gay marriage advocates failed, meaning that voters voted “yes” to all mainstream public opinions without further ado. The potential consequences on the original decision to legalize gay marriage, however, could further deal a severe blow to Taiwan’s democratic values, activists said.

Elections Set Stage for Midlife Crisis

The results of the “nine-in-one” elections and cumbersome referendums have further set the stage for a transition of identity and self-confidence among the members and supporters of the DPP. Premier Lai and Presidential Office Secretary General Chen Chu already offered their resignation, but the ruling party will have to work harder to regain the support of those who blame the government “incompetence” for allowing this election fiasco.

Taiwan voters have clearly expressed dissatisfaction with President Tsai and the DPP leadership, not only for the sluggish economy, continuing low wages and a soaring wealth gap, but also the worsening of cross-strait relations since she came into power in 2016. The lesson which the ruling party can draw from this election could be that the majority of people simply want good relations with China and peace and prosperity for Taiwan.

That’s an important paradigm shift President Tsai and her party will have to undertake during their upcoming “midlife crisis,” if they want to win the presidency and legislative elections in 2020.

— Dimitri Bruyas | Special to The China Post