Taiwan’s main opposition party suffers consecutive electoral defeats as all sides zero in on its future
Taiwan held two elections on Sunday, and both results were viewed as heavy defeats for the biggest opposition party Kuomintang (KMT). However, some experts think the consecutive electoral defeats for the party can’t necessarily be viewed as indicators for the upcoming national election at the end of 2022, as local factions still display a certain level of mobilization in society.
There were two elections in Taiwan on Sunday, as the independent legislator Freddy Lim faced a possible recall while several candidates were trying to win a seat left by former legislator Chen Bo-Wei in a by-election. Eventually, Ching-Yi Lin from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) defeated Yen Kuan-heng from KMT while Lim avoided being recalled in a slim margin.
After the results were reported, some observers view them as yet another setback for the KMT. The absence of its chairperson Eric Chu also received widespread criticism from all sides. He finally responded to the defeats on Monday, saying he would shoulder all the responsibilities of any failure.
Chu said the result of Sunday’s by-election in Taichung clearly proves that the KMT needs to work harder and try to get more support from independent voters and young people. “We can’t solve problems by immersing in attacks or blame games,” he told reporters.
What is KMT’s next move?
All sides are assessing how the consecutive electoral losses might affect KMT’s performance in the upcoming local election in 2022. Lev Nachman, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for China Studies, says that while the referendums and the recall vote against Freddy Lim were all initiated by KMT’s former chairperson Johnny Chiang, the consecutive losses mean that Eric Chu will face a lot of challenges in his tenure.
“A couple of things now can happen for the KMT,” he said. “Either people will say ‘you know what, this is the last of Chiang’s shit and now we can let Eric Chu do what he wants to do with the party and things will be better for the mid-term.’”
“Or people will say this is clearly a sign that there is nowhere for us to go and we are not really sure what the next step is going to be,” he added.
Fang-Yu Chen, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taiwan, says it is too early to predict how the KMT will perform in the upcoming election through the recent results. However, it’s worth paying attention to the interaction between Eric Chu, New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-Yi, and former Kaohsiung city mayor Han Kuo-Yu.
“It is obvious that people are more interested in the relationship between Chu, Han, and Hou,” he said. “Hou is now the hope of KMT but others in the party may not necessarily want him to rise up the ranks. There might be some checks and balances. It’s also time to observe the interaction between Zhu and Han.”
KMT’s local faction suffers defeat in Taichung
The two elections on Sunday also highlighted some challenges that the KMT is facing, as well as the mistakes that they’ve committed during the election. Nachman describes the loss in Taichung’s by-election as another “snafu for the KMT after the other,” because after the former legislator Chen Bo-Wei was recalled last year, the result mobilized the ruling party’s supporters in this election, and also made the district become a national focus.
“They replaced Chen with another green politician. Even though the recall against Chen was successful, ultimately the KMT still kind of lost and the DPP is now at a stronger position than they were at the start,” he said.
In fact, Lin won all five districts in the election and she won 51.83% of the votes, which is higher than the 47.25% votes that her opponent has won. Yen came from a family that has been dominating local politics in this particular district for years, yet the media exposed a lot of scandals related to his family prior to Sunday’s vote.
Nachman thinks the DPP won the by-election by putting the Yen family’s complicated history under the spotlight and the strategy also exceeded KMT’s expectations.
“DPP ran Lin as this kind of outside the traditional factional local politics and fresh faces,” he said. “ The results in Taichung really showed that, with the right campaign and the right strategy, anywhere can really be turned.”
However, Chen from Soochow University says that while some wonder whether Yen’s loss represents the local factions’ gradual lack of influence on Taiwan’s electoral politics, he thinks local factions prove they can still mobilize a certain amount of voters through this election.
“Although the Yen family’s influence has decreased, they were still able to secure 80,000 votes, which means they are at least 80,000 votes in that constituency,” he said. “There is no guarantee that the next DPP candidate will be able to get the same number of votes as Lin did this time.”
What does the recall election result show?
While Lim didn’t get recalled in the election in Taipei, the number of votes that agree to recall him still exceeds the votes that disagree to recall him by more than 10,000 votes. Additionally, the “yes” camp only needs more than 3000 votes to reach the threshold to recall him.
Some experts think even though the DPP mobilized a lot of high-profile politicians to campaign for Lim, the effect of these strategies seems to be limited. “The DPP had Tsai Ing-wen go to Wanhua and spoke on Freddy’s behalf but look at how many green votes they have mobilized? Not that many,” said Nachman.
“While the DPP fought a strong campaign in Taichung, The recall election is a different story and I really don’t think they are good at addressing the recalls quite yet,” he added.
Both Nachman and Chen agree that DPP should look into how to amend Taiwan’s referendum and recall act. Chen thinks that Taiwan should maybe consider setting different thresholds for recalls against legislators and local officials, as well as revising the “verification mechanism” for collecting signatures.
Nachman thinks that the last few recall elections have proved that the current threshold in Taiwan’s recall act is too low, and the ruling party should consider raising the threshold to 30% or 35% to avoid repeating what many experts describe as “revenge recalls.”
Responding to some media’s characterization of the recent trend in Taiwan as the island maybe being too “democratic,” Nachman says the trend shows that Taiwan’s democratic mechanisms still need adjustments.
“Taiwan is still figuring out how its institution is going to function and I think Taiwan is still figuring out what the sweet spot is with some of these things,” he said. “The recall is a good example. It’s not bad to have this many elections, but it’s a matter of whether these elections are necessary or worth having.”
This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.