Taiwan held the equivalent of a midterm election on Saturday. The results were brutally disappointing for President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – so disappointing that Tsai almost immediately resigned as head of the party, although she remains president of Taiwan.
Mainland Chinese newspapers could hardly restrain their glee at the outcome since Beijing has long despised Tsai and her party as reckless independence activists.
The narrative from Beijing was that Taiwanese voters rejected Tsai and the DPP because they desire closer relations with the mainland. Chinese analysts took great pleasure in the difficult electoral landscape facing Tsai in her 2020 re-election bid as a result of Saturday’s elections, which shifted a great deal of local administrative power and its attendant political influence to the more China-friendly Kuomintang party (KMT).
The Associated Press painted a grim portrait of the extensive damage to Tsai’s party on Sunday morning:
In another victory for China, voters rejected a proposal to change the name of its Olympic team to Taiwan from the current Chinese Taipei. They also approved a referendum opposing same-sex marriage in a setback to LGBT couples, though ballot initiatives in Taiwan are non-binding.
The DPP lost the mayoral election to the Nationalist party in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, where it had held power for 20 years. The Nationalists also defeated the DPP in the central city of Taichung, home to much of Taiwan’s light industry, while Ko Wen-je, the independent mayor of Taipei, the capital, narrowly won a second term. The Nationalist candidate in Taipei has asked for a recount.
At a brief news conference at DPP headquarters late Saturday, Tsai announced she was stepping down as DPP chair and said she had refused Premier William Lai’s resignation, saying she wanted him to continue her reform agenda.
“Today, democracy taught us a lesson,” Tsai said. “We must study and accept the higher expectations of the people.”
Taiwanese analysts agreed the issue of relations with China was on the table but noted voters were also motivated by local issues such as a flagging economy and government pension cuts.
President Tsai, in what amounted to her farewell message as head of the DPP, urged the party to address its age gap and elevate more young politicians to leadership positions.
“We should reflect on our defeat and I’m the one to be blamed,” she wrote. “Let’s move to allow the younger generation to assume greater duties and let’s work together toward that goal.”
China’s state-run Global Times flooded the zone with Taiwanese election coverage, declaring in one report that Tsai’s misfortune was also bad news for her friends in the United States:
The result of local elections in Taiwan showed that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has lost people’s support and conveyed a strong signal to the US that no country shall fool Taiwan residents or attempt to play the Taiwan card to contain the mainland, Chinese analysts warned on Sunday.
It is predicted that the US will continue to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in the 2020 US general elections to restrain the development of the Chinese mainland and push Beijing to compromise. But it would be quite difficult for the US to continue with this strategy under changing regional dynamics, analysts said.
As far as the Global Times was concerned, it was a single-issue election, and the single issue was Taiwan’s desire to turn away from the West and embrace Mother China, an impulse especially strong among the young Taiwanese voters China has assiduously courted since Tsai’s election:
The DPP was defeated because residents have started abandoning the party. The people of Taiwan now realize that relying on the US will not solve their problems. Their choice sent a signal to Washington that no country shall treat them as a puppet, said Yang.
In February, the Chinese mainland revealed 31 new measures to boost exchange and cooperation with Taiwan. Over 10,000 young people from the island had taken internships, found jobs or started businesses in the mainland’s entrepreneurship bases and pilot sites by the end of June, according to Xinhua.
In September, a new regulation came into effect that allows residents of Taiwan to apply for residence permits in the mainland. More than 22,000 Taiwan residents had applied for such residence permits in the Chinese mainland by September.
Observers predict the US will not come to terms with the election results and will continue playing the Taiwan card to contend with the mainland. “The next year will be full of turbulence and changes, and the situation in Taiwan is still tough,” Chang Ya-chung, an international relations professor at National Taiwan University, told the Global Times.
Chang said the US will fully manipulate Taiwan to speak for the favor of Washington in the 2020 general elections and push the mainland into a dilemma.
“For example, the US may invite Tsai Ing-wen for an official visit,” he said, adding that it is hard for both the KMT and the DPP to ultimately change their attitude toward the US.
Another Global Times editorial dismissed allegations of China mounting a Russia-style propaganda campaign to meddle in the Taiwanese election and said it was simply a matter of Taiwanese voters realizing they were foolish to entertain fantasies of independence from “the most powerful engine for global economic growth”:
Non-intervention in the Taiwan elections has always been the mainland’s policy. But the mainland has been increasingly influential to Taiwan because of its rapid economic growth. Confronting the mainland will be a tough task for Taiwan. Wooing the US to counter the mainland is also a delusion. Either way, confrontations will lead to nothing but a dead end.
Tsai and her party have failed to have a clear vision of the world and Taiwan’s real position in the Asia-Pacific political structure. Strategic immaturity and reckless decision-making will probably annihilate their hard-won ruling opportunity.
Radical thinking and paranoia that permeates the green camp have misguided the DPP. The party needs to reflect on this failure and make an about-face on its stance in the cross-Straits ties.
There was some grumbling about long lines at the polls, leading to the resignation of the election commissioner, who accepted responsibility and promised to “engage in sincere introspection.”
At least one Kuomintang candidate has challenged the outcome of a race he lost, alleging “major illegalities in the voting and counting process,” in particular the way some districts began counting votes while others were still accepting ballots. Election officials say this was a quirk of the standard procedure for counting votes as soon as each polling station closes, a policy that became problematic this year due to extremely higher turnout and a large number of referendums on the ballot.