5 reasons for Kuomintang's crushing defeat in Taiwan's local elections

Supporters wave flags after Taipei mayoral candidate Ko Wen-je won the local elections, in Taipei on Nov 29, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Supporters wave flags after Taipei mayoral candidate Ko Wen-je won the local elections, in Taipei on Nov 29, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Taiwan's cabinet resigned en masse on Monday (Dec 1, 2014), two days after the Kuomintang (KMT) suffered a massive defeat in the island's biggest ever local elections.

The polls saw the pro-China KMT left with just one city - New Taipei - from the previous four, while the pro-democracy camp swept the remainig five key cities at stake. KMT also saw its city and county seats reduced by more than half.

Here are five reasons for KMT's crushing defeat in the polls:

1. An insipid economy

As costs of living continue to climb, wages have stagnated. The average monthly income in 2008 when Mr Ma Ying-jeou became President was NT$36,387 (S$1,173); this inched up to NT$37,527 (S$1,576) last year.

People also associated the KMT with championing the welfare of big businesses rather than working for the good of small enterprises and the grassroots.

"To a large extent, this is a protest vote on the economy," says Dr Zheng Zhenqing of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Tsinghua University.

2. Unsuitable KMT candidates

Some observers say it was a mistake for KMT to field candidates such as Mr Sean Lien, 44, the son of former premier Lien Chan, and Jason Hu, 66, who was contesting in the Taichung mayoral race for the fourth time.

"The KMT needs to consider why it seems unable to groom younger, fresher candidates who can attract younger voters with new ideas," says Professor Chu Jintao, an expert on Taiwan affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

3. Identity issue or China factor

Under Mr Ma, cross-strait ties warmed to an unprecedented degree. More than 20 trade deals have been inked. Earlier this year, China and Taiwan held their first official meeting since the 1949 civil war.

But while welcomed by businesses, the warming of ties also led to uneasiness that both sides have become too cosy, paving the way for widening Chinese influence in Taiwan - and eventually reunification, observers say. There is also the belief among some in Taiwan that closer cross-strait ties has not translated into tangible benefits for them, say observers.

The island's residents are increasingly identifying themselves as "Taiwanese" (about two-thirds) rather than "Taiwanese and Chinese" (one- third) or "Chinese" (virtually nil).

The young are leading this counter-charge, as seen in the Sunflower movement in March when students occupied the legislature to protest against the ratification of a services trade pact with China - and they turned out to vote, says Professor Lee Hsiao-feng, an expert in democratic movements from the National Taipei University of Education.

4. Food scandals

Voter confidence has also been shaken by a string of food scandals, including a case where hundreds of tonnes of cakes, bread, instant noodles, cookies, dumplings and other food items made with "gutter oil" were removed from shelves in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The tainted oil was collected from cookers, fryers, and grease traps, as well as recycled grease from leather processing plants and then mixed with regular lard before being sold to clients. Mr Chiu Wen-ta resigned as Health Minister in October over the food scare.

Other food scandals included a spate of discoveries last year of watered-down or fraudulent products ranging from cooking oil and soy sauce to bread and honey.

5. Unpopularity of President Ma

Unfulfilled promises of economic revival, flip-flop policies and concerns about his administration's cozy relations with China have contributed to public distrust of Mr Ma. His approval ratings remain below 20 per cent, falling at one point to below 10 per cent. This is in sharp contrast with the average approval rating of between 60 per cent and 70 per cent following his first inauguration in 2008.

The 64-year-old has been president since March 22, 2008, when he won the election with 58 per cent of the vote, ending eight years of rule under the opposition Democratic Party Party.

He has one and a half years to go in his second four-year term as President. Economics professor Norman Yin of National Chengchi University is pessimistic that any substantive change will come. Instead, Mr Ma will be a "lame duck" for the rest of his term before the presidential election in early 2016, he predicts.

Text by Li Xueying, The Straits Times' Regional Correspondent in Hong Kong