Interpreting Taiwan’s Local Elections

If the numbers of elected or reelected local officials was all that counted, the KMT could claim to have added another victory to their success in the presidential elections of 2008. Seventeen mayor and commissioner posts were up for grabs on Saturday. The KMT won twelve of them, four went to the DPP (the oppositional Democratic Progressive Party), and one to an independent candidate – details here ».

But when comparing the actual percentage each of Taiwan’s main political parties carried, the gap between their scores is much smaller. In the presidential elections of 2008, the KMT’s candidate Ma Ying-jeou (马英九) had carried 59 percent of the vote, while Frank Hsieh (Hsieh Chang-ting, 谢长廷) who ran for the DPP obtained only 41 percent. The gap has now narrowed to about 2.5 percent only: KMT 47.86 : 45.39 DPPVoter turnout was 66.32 percent according to the Taipei Times – that said, the cities and counties where elections really took place only covered some seven million eligible voters. In the presidential elections of 2008, the number of Taiwaners eligible to vote was 17,321,622, and 76 percent of them actually went to the polls.

Michael Turton, a blogger in Taichung, Taiwan, computed the DPP’s showing compared to the presidential elections 2008, in all counties and cities where local elections were held.

a safe pair of hands?

a safe pair of hands?

Now the tealeaves are being read. Did the DPP recover because of president Ma’s policies of economic integration with China? Or did the voters disapprove of the travesty justice has been turned into with the arrest and conviction of Ma Ying-jeou’s predecessor, president Chen Shui-bian? Are the voters unhappy with the economy, and would happily accept further economic integration with China, if it helps Taiwan’s economy? Zhang Duncai (张敦财), deputy director of Xiamen University’s Taiwan Research Institute in southeastern China’s Fujian Province, doesn’t sound sanguine. The local election results could be characterized as a setback for the KMT and a gain for the pro-independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party DPP, the Chinese scientist is quoted by Taiwan News. Taiwan’s government would become more reluctant to promote cross-strait programs that might eclipse or undermine President Ma’s administrative achievements or the KMT’s power base: “Political issues, in particular, will be least likely to be brought to the negotiating table in the foreseeable future.”

The local elections may not be more than a hint at unease over closer ties with China. They didn’t cover all of Taiwan, and the BBC lists yet some more issues which may have helped the DPP, and hurt the KMT, such as the global recession and the KMT government’s slow reaction to Typhoon Morakot in August this year.

But Taiwan is a country threatened by China indeed – something not even the KMT would deny. In October, the defense ministry published a paper which said that China had “continued its arms build-up to the point that it has tipped the military balance in the Taiwan Strait”.

The really good news from these elections – just as from all free elections – is that Taiwan is a democratic country, and that a government of any color needs to take the people’s concerns into account.

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Footnote / Update: Chen Chen-hui (KMT) certainly didn’t lose his seat as head of Huwei Township due to a lack of passion. After the results had been announced, he arrived with a loaded gun at the campaign headquarters of Lin Wen-bin (DPP). Lin’s sister was reportedly slightly injured.

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