TAIWAN’S ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), has suffered one of its worst electoral defeats since Chiang Kai-shek and his forces fled to the island at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. The polls on November 29th, for 11,130 mayors, councillors and town chiefs, saw big gains for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which has attacked the KMT’s efforts to forge closer economic ties with China. The results are a huge political blow to President Ma Ying-jeou (pictured) and will increase China’s worries that the DPP might regain the presidency in elections that are due to be held in 2016.
The extent of the DPP’s gains surprised many observers, despite signs in recent months that support for Mr Ma and his KMT was flagging. DPP mayoral candidates won in 13 of Taiwan’s 22 counties and major cities, up from a previous six. They include the capital Taipei and the city of Taichung, an important commercial hub in central Taiwan with a population of over 2.7m. The DPP’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen, described her party’s success in the polls as the best in its history (her party controlled the presidency from 2000 until 2008, when Mr Ma took over amid widespread dissatisfaction with corruption in the DPP and its tense relations with China). Now more than 60% of Taiwan’s 23m people are ruled by a DPP mayor.
History was made in Taipei when Ko Wen-je, a renowned trauma surgeon running as an independent, defeated the KMT’s Sean Lien, the son of a former Taiwanese vice-president, Lien Chan. It was the first time the KMT lost Taipei without a split in its camp’s vote (the DPP has won in the city only once—20 years ago). After Mr Ko’s win, Mr Ma announced that his premier, Jiang Yi-huah, would resign and he would reshuffle the cabinet. Mr Ma is likely to face pressure from within his party to step down as the KMT’s chairman. He has shown no sign of willingness to do so.
The elections, being local ones, were more about such issues as urban development rather than relations with China. Candidates sought to win over voters with plans for building infrastructure and public housing. But the poll did reflect widespread dissatisfaction with Mr Ma’s handling of the economy, says George Tsai of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. Salaries have stagnated for years and there is a widespread belief that only Taiwan’s business elite is reaping the economic rewards of closer ties with China. (Mr Ma has signed 21 agreements with China, including a ground-breaking free-trade pact in 2010.) This view is particularly prevalent among Taiwanese youth, who were at the forefront of an occupation of the legislature that lasted more than three weeks in the spring. The failure of Mr Ma’s government to prevent a series of food scandals has also upset many.
Although the China-friendly Mr Ma remains in power and his party still controls the legislature, China will be disturbed. It will be even less convinced that Mr Ma will have the political strength to push for more measures to improve cross-strait ties before he steps down in 2016; there had been talk of setting up representative offices in each other’s territory as well as greater liberalisation of cross-strait trade. The DPP’s strengthened popularity might cause some KMT lawmakers to become more lukewarm in their support for these projects (early in 2016 they will be up for re-election too). The coming year will be a tense one in Taiwan’s politics.