TAIPEI – On Saturday, Taiwanese voters in the island’s five most populous and developed municipalities cast votes to elect their mayors. Although these were local polls, they have weighty repercussions. The municipal elections are seen as a precursor to legislative elections next year and presidential elections in 2012. In addition, the polls are seen by many as a referendum on the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party’s Beijing-friendly cross-strait policy.
Contrary to the high hopes harbored by Taiwan’s opposition, the outcome failed to reshuffle Taiwan’s political landscape. Geographically, the balance of power was left unchanged. The KMT keeps control over the island’s north, while its challenger,
the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), holds on tightly to the south.
Still, what at first glance seems much like an endorsement of the status quo is a fruit bitter to swallow not only for the KMT but also for Beijing. As the pro-independence DPP won the popular vote by more than 5%, it’s certain that the outcome of the municipal elections is seen as a bad omen on the mainland side of the Taiwan Strait.
Although Saturday’s elections would not translate into a transfer of power on the national level, the sheer number of voters that were involved alone ensures that the outcome is likely to have profound implications for Taiwan’s political development.
About 10.6 million people, or 60% of Taiwan’s voting-age population, went to the ballot booths for this much-anticipated showdown between the KMT and DPP. And the run-up could hardly have been more dramatic. Bitter finger pointing and scandals dragged on for much of the year, with the ugliness of Taiwan’s domestic politics exposed in a macabre way when the son of a KMT heavyweight was shot by a local gangster at a campaign event one day prior to the polls. But the election was also unique in the Chinese-speaking world, being truly democratic and almost entirely free of violations.
In the capital Taipei, the KMT had its most notable victory. Incumbent Mayor Hau Lung-bin won re-election with 55.6% of the votes, easily beating his DPP rival Su Tseng-chang’s 43.81%. In Xinbei – the new name for the county surrounding Taipei after an upgrade to a special municipality – the KMT’s Eric Liluan Chu garnered 52.6% of the vote, against DPP party chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen’s 47.39%. In Taichung, a municipality in central Taiwan which, like Taipei, is a traditional KMT stronghold, incumbent KMT mayor Jason Hu got 51.12% of the vote to defeat Su Jia-chyuan in a result that was much closer than expected.
While none of the KMT’s victories in the north can be described as landslides, the DPP actually won big in the southern cities of Tainan and Kaohsiung. In Tainan, the DPP’s William Lai got 60.41% of the vote against the KMT’s Kuo Tien-tsai. And in Kaohsiung, also a traditional DPP territory, incumbent DPP mayor Chen Chu’s 52.8% convincingly beat independent candidate Yang Chiu-hsing’s 26.68%, as well as KMT candidate Huang Chao-shun’s 20.52%.
It’s an outcome that looks much like a tie. But to Taiwan’s political observers, it’s not necessarily such.
“To many, it seems as if the KMT and DPP both won, because the former made the race in the north’s three major cities, while the latter won the popular vote,” said Chen Mao-Hsiung, a retired professor from Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-sen University. “But actually, the KMT lost rather big because it traditionally holds such clout in the north that as long as the DPP isn’t defeated utterly there, the DPP can still claim success.”
Chen Yaw-shyang, an assistant professor of public policy at National Taipei University, sees the results as closer to a draw. He said: “I don’t see a winner. The KMT’s candidate in Taichung, Jason Hu, was shocked to win by only a 2% margin, whereas the DPP’s Su Tseng-chang was dealt such a devastating blow that he will have a very hard time convincing his party fellows that he remains a suitable candidate for the presidential elections in 2012.”
Since it was relatively clear that Taichung would be won by the KMT and Tainan and Kaohsiung by the DPP, both parties’ campaigning focused on Taipei and Xinbei. The KMT candidates could take advantage of the helping hand of the party that runs both the central and the Taipei city government.
For only the second time in its 50-odd years of existence, the Taipei International Flora Exposition’s grand opening was scheduled for November – during the run-up to the polls. At the same time, direct flights from Taipei to Tokyo were launched, showcasing the KMT’s accomplishment in bringing Taipei out of international isolation. A new segment of the city’s mass transit system – which intriguingly connects Taipei with Xinbei, the very electoral battlegrounds that were most hotly contested – was opened ahead of schedule and therefore right in time for the elections.
A high-profile spat over a Taiwanese taekwondo athlete who was disqualified at the Asian Games in China a week before the polls led to an unprecedented outburst of anti-Korean and nationalistic sentiment. The KMT took advantage of this by somewhat loudly demanding justice, and effectively declaring the athlete a national hero. And an announcement was made four days before the elections that the unemployment rate had dropped to a two-year low of 4.92% last month.
Finally, only one day before the elections, the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou approved an urban revival plan that provides incentives to residents of older buildings, so they can rebuild or renovate their homes. As more than 3 million households live in buildings more than 30 years old, and 700,000 families in buildings built 20 to 29 years ago, a significant share of Taiwan’s population, especially in the five municipalities where the polls were held, is set to benefit.
The DPP, by contrast, spent many of the months prior to the polls criticizing the Taipei International Flora Exposition. The party also discovered irregularities in the procurement of building materials, leading to prosecutors investigating high-ranking aides close to Mayor Hau. However, since the expo has so far run smoothly and has drawn praise from domestic and international visitors, the DPP’s preoccupation with the issue failed to sway voters. The DPP further failed to cash in on social issues, such as skyrocketing property prices and the widespread notion that Taiwan’s projected annual gross domestic product growth rate of about 9% hadn’t yet led to higher wages.
The creation of the special municipalities where the elections were held is the result of Taiwan’s biggest jurisdictional overhaul in nearly a century. In Kaohsiung, Tainan and Taichung, counties were merged with cities, and thus upgraded to special municipalities.
The former Taipei county was also upgraded to a special municipality. From the end of the year, all will fall under the direct jurisdiction of the central government. As a result, the municipalities will be allocated a larger budget, which according to Taiwan scholars will create a “magnetic effect” and considerably widen the urban-rural gap. Especially in northern and central Taiwan, population density will continue to intensify, and Taiwan’s development will be even more unbalanced geographically.
In 2012, the year of Taiwan’s next presidential elections, it won’t be 60% of Taiwan’s population living in Taipei, Xinbei, Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung, but possibly closer to 70%. Accordingly, it will be the residents of the same municipalities who cast ballots on Saturday who will make or break politiciansaspiring for the presidency. Since the polls failed to create obvious balances of power, all sides are thus likely filled with a good portion of anxiety. As Professor Chen told Asia Times Online, “Last Saturday was a day that struck the KMT, DPP and also China with fear.”