Ker Sin Tze For The Straits Times

What recent polls mean for Taiwan in 2016

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou waving to his KMT party colleagues after resigning as chairman on Dec 3, 2014, after the ruling party's massive polls defeat. -- PHOTO: AFP
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou waving to his KMT party colleagues after resigning as chairman on Dec 3, 2014, after the ruling party's massive polls defeat. -- PHOTO: AFP

Few expected that Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party would do as disastrously as it did in last month's local elections. Out of 22 municipalities and counties, KMT won only six.

The traditional delineation of pro-KMT support in the north, and pro-independence support for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the south, has been completely shattered.

Taipei, the capital, was won handsomely by an independent candidate, Dr Ko Wen-je, who is closely associated with DPP, and neighbouring Taoyuan was captured by DPP. The KMT lost in five of the six major cities, winning only marginally in New Taipei City.

The reasons for KMT's defeat are numerous. The first is economic. The KMT government has worked hard to secure economic concessions from the mainland to benefit the Taiwanese. For instance, it persuaded Beijing to allow more tourists to visit Taiwan. The tourism expansion has benefited hoteliers and retailers, but the benefits have not spread evenly to other sectors of the economy.

The government also negotiated a Taiwan-mainland free trade agreement, known as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (Ecfa), which includes a relaxation of service restrictions between the mainland and Taiwan. It will open up the mainland market to Taiwanese goods and service providers but the small traders and service providers in Taiwan are worried that their markets may be invaded by mainland businessmen.

There is unhappiness and resentment against the government for pushing through the passage of the Ecfa Bill in the Legislative Yuan.

Second, the introduction of new taxes has affected certain groups adversely. The levy on high-end property purchases and stock trading taxes provoked the ire of investors. The proposed abolition of the 18 per cent interest payout on saving accounts to retirees from the military, teaching profession and civil servants has left those who depend on the high interest for income, feeling insecure.

Third, a number of corruption scandals have tainted the government's pristine image. When DPP was in power and Mr Chen Shui-bian was president from 2000-2008, corruption was rampant. The KMT had campaigned on the ticket of establishing a clean government, and Mr Ma Ying-jeou, with his legal background, promised to eradicate corruption at all costs.

They won and formed the government. However, several cases of corruption involving high officials were discovered during KMT's administration. One of them involved extortion by Executive Yuan secretary-general Lin Yi-shih, a KMT vice-chairman and promising young politician from the south.

Fourth, the disunity of the KMT party has shattered the grassroots support base. In refusing to compromise on his pristine principle, President Ma has created distance from other factions within the KMT.

It is widely known that he is disliked by Mr Lien Chan, KMT honorary chairman and father of Mr Sean Lien, the defeated candidate in the Taipei City election. President Ma also caused a crisis in party unity when he accused Speaker of the Legislative Yuan Wang Jin-pyng of corruption.

Mr Wang appealed in court successfully to keep his KMT party membership, which is necessary to retain his position as House Speaker.

Fifth, young and new voters find the KMT - a party more than 100 years old - conservative, opaque and even oppressive. Such voters communicate mostly by social media and they tend to give more support to the DPP and independent candidates such as Dr Ko.

The immediate impacts of the KMT defeat were the resignation of premier Jiang Yi-huah and his Cabinet, and President Ma's resignation as KMT chairman. A new party chairman will be elected in March next year. The Legislative Yuan elections and the presidential elections will be held in 2016 - less than two years from now. What is the outlook for those polls?

With the landslide victory in the recent elections, the DPP has boosted its morale and is poised to win more seats in the Legislative Yuan and re-capture the presidency.

As DPP is a much younger party, it is more open to young party aspirants, with greater mobility within the party hierarchy. That will attract young people to join it and help it recruit more talent. Young party leaders such as Taichung mayor-elect Lin Chia-lung and Tainan mayor-elect William Lai are both resilient and capable. Party chairman Tsai Ing-wen is also relatively young. They and other young leaders will present a fresh image to voters, and DPP may well be a formidable challenger in the 2016 Legislative Yuan and presidential elections.

KMT, on the other hand, has less than two years to rejuvenate and prepare itself for the next elections. KMT also has young leaders such as New Taipei mayor-elect Eric Chu, and Mr John Wu and Mr Sean Lien, who contested in Taoyuan and Taipei respectively. It is a long-established party with historic links to mainland China. It also has more administrative experience, which is badly needed to govern and lead Taiwan in the years ahead.

The party that can convince voters that it will look after their interests will win the mandate to govern Taiwan, come 2016. DPP may have won a landslide victory on Nov 29 but those were local municipal elections, not national polls. The voters may be more cautious in casting their votes in elections involving national issues, and may consider experience in national governance an important factor.

Moreover, the KMT will have its advantage as the ruling party in mobilising resources to help its election campaign. The DPP, as the opposition party, will earn voters' sympathies that it should have the opportunity to govern for a change, after eight years under KMT's governance.

The year 2016 will see many young people cast their ballots as first-time voters. They will be more likely to vote for DPP. The KMT will have to rejuvenate itself to identify with new and young voters and win their support. At the same time, KMT will have to retain the votes of its original supporters, mostly from the military and civil service sectors.

If, however, DPP succeeds in winning the presidential election and forms the government, it will unlikely be a repeat of the last DPP administration during 2000-2008.

DPP will be more mature and experienced and better able to avoid the chaos and pitfalls of the Chen Shui-bian government. But DPP will have to be more pragmatic in handling its policies and affairs with the mainland.

It should continue to set aside its original objective in its party charter of seeking independence. Otherwise, cross-strait tension will be raised again and the region will be thrown into chaos and disquiet over sovereignty disputes.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer was Trade Representative, Singapore Trade Office in Taipei, from 2002-2007. He is now Adjunct Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.