Understanding Taiwan’s 2018 Mid-Term Elections: What We Learn from Democracy

Written by Michael Xizhuang Zhou

In early November, many had anticipated a “blue wave” during the U.S. mid-terms and expected the Democrats to take back the Congress. The wave did come, but in a far less decisive or overwhelming fashion than many had predicted or wanted. However, just weeks later, a more powerful blue wave swept across Taiwan, leaving its political landscape shaken.

From Green Land to Blue Sky

On November 24th, 2018, Taiwan’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was handed a rebuke in the island’s midterms, in which it lost 7 out of the 13 counties and cities up for grabs. More devastating to DPP were its significant losses in the island’s south, traditional DPP territory for decades, to its political archival, the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT).

Meanwhile, KMT’s victory in the south snatched Taiwan’s three biggest cities — New Taipei City, Taichung, and Kaohsiung — for its electoral basket. Assuming responsibility for the party’s electoral defeats, President Tsai Ing-wen resigned as DPP’s leader.

Particularly stinging to the DPP was its defeat in the mayoral race for Kaohsiung, a DPP southern stronghold for 20 years. KMT’s outsider politician, Han Kuo-yu, rode to victory as a dark horse candidate and defeated his DPP opponent, Chen Chi-mai, who, from the election outset, was expected to win easily. Analysts and pundits have argued that widespread dissatisfaction with the city’s sluggish economy and Tsai’s under-performing administration were put forth as crucial reasons behind Han’s surprise victory.

The DPP’s track record in Kaohsiung has been anything but impressive. Kaohsiung remained the world’s third-busiest container port in the 1980s and well into the 1990s. However, the city dropped out of the top 10 by the mid-2000s, today standing at a modest 13th position.[1]  The slump in the city’s international maritime competitiveness under DPP rule reflects a decline in Kaohsiung’s economic activities and the incompetence of its administration. Thus, unsurprisingly, Han’s campaign promises to assuage growing discontent among the city’s population and incite the return of Kaohxiung’s former glory — to make Kaohsiung the “richest city in Taiwan” (打造高雄,全台首富 dazaogaosiong — grabbed many headlines and resonated deeply with the locals.

In the eyes of Kaoshiungers, however, a vote for Han was not necessarily perceived to be a vote for the KMT. Instead, they saw it as a vote for a better economy and a more prosperous future.

Essentially, Kaohsiung’s election results give us a glimpse of the larger political picture of Taiwan’s midterm elections. KMT’s victory (borrowing local parlance)  to turn “the green land into the blue sky” (绿地变蓝天, lüdi bian lantian) cannot be interpreted merely as a KMT victory over the DPP. Neither does it make a convincing statement to the people’s rejection of DPP’s ideologies and party doctrines in favour of KMT’s. Instead, DPP’s elections debacle is illustrative of people’s opinions on President Tsai’s unpopular domestic policies and deteriorating relations with Beijing, which has caused severe political and economic ramifications.

The 2018 mid-term elections represent a decisive break from the traditional “Blue-Green” dichotomy in Taiwanese politics. In this sense, we can argue that it was not a blue but a democratic and popular wave across Taiwan. In many ways, ironic as it sounds, this represented democracy at both its vulnerable and finest moment.

The People’s Power

Despite intense politicking and makeshift campaign performances, it was the people’s voice that Taiwan — and the world — had heard. The ordinary folks had spoken. But they spoke not of ideologies nor politics. To be clear, a stagnant economy has severely dented President Tsai and her party’s credibility in the eyes of Taiwanese people. On elections day, voters wasted no time to make their frustration and dissatisfaction heard.

The outcomes of the elections should remind both DPP and KMT leaders that past election trends and party doctrines will no longer give them a new lease on political life in the future. Neither will public opinion swing between pro-independence or pro-Beijing sentiments. Moving forward, Taiwan’s political leaders should begin to reorient party objectives and goals to better respond to needs and challenges arising from prevailing and fast-changing political and social climates.

Understanding Democracy

President Tsai had warned Taiwanese that a vote for KMT was a vote against democracy.[2]  However, DPP’s devastating losses in the elections laid bare an inconvenient and hard truth: democracy is as much as concerned about ideology and values as it is about bread and butter issues.

Granted, oppression and authoritarianism are antonyms of freedom and democracy. But likewise, poor governance and a trust deficit between the government and its people are just as incompatible to democracy. A failing government plagued by a sluggish economy and poor policies does not fare any better than a government ruled by the iron hand of a dictator or whims of a tyrant in the democratic scoresheet.

The work of building a sturdier democratic infrastructure in our societies cannot be left alone to “Professor Democracy” or “Mr Politician” who are often so busy at winning rhetorical and political battles that they tend to neglect the lives of the silent and the inconspicuous. In the case of Taiwan, sadly, democracy in theory does not always retain its form in practice. Democratic values and principles are more brandished as slogans during campaigns or manipulated as politicking strategies. However, they are less converted into concrete policy steps to eradicate real-life problems and issues. 

As the elections backlash in Taiwan reveals, the process of democratisation in societies should not be treated as an end in itself. Instead, it entails a long process, one that provides hardworking and dedicated individuals with the means to attain a better life for themselves. Democratic ideas are not tools for us to briefly sketch what may or should work, but rather vital materials for us to construct what works. Democracy is not just about ideology but equally concerned with concretising action and policy on the ground. Democracy is not merely words of encouragement or hope to inform people of what they can aspire, but real action plans to help them achieve those that they want. Democracy is also not about condemning those that are different but offering the humility and generosity to accommodate and hear from them. In short, a true and healthy democratic process is one that brings progress, not stagnancy; it encourages cooperation, not partisanship.

President Tsai and her party may have succeeded in tearing down the towers of authoritarianism and political manipulation and lifting the banners of freedom and democracy at one point in time. However, the DPP has not managed to consolidate their gains and erect new structures from above its political foundation to help translate democratic ideas and principles into democratic action. A thriving civil society and a free press are essential to maintaining the health of a democratic community. But it is from a well-performing administration that is responsive to people’s livelihoods and a strong economy that provides people with opportunities to work toward a comfortable life that allow popular trust and support for democratic governance to be derived and sustained. While there has been evidence of political freedom and democratic building under the DPP leadership, however, these democratic gains failed to generate tangible economic and social outcomes for the Taiwanese people. As a consequence of this democratic gap, Taiwan’s political foundations crumbled as soon as the popular wave swept past.

Taiwan’s 2018 mid-term elections, indeed, have left behind important lessons on democracy and reminded political leaders and average folks of both the vulnerability and power of the democratic process. As world leaders prepare to place the finishing touches on the building of democracy, it is the opinion of the people, not political architects, that they should actively seek and consider — something that both DPP and KMT leaders would learn by now. 


About the Author: Zhou Xizhuang Michael is a second-year undergraduate at the National University of Singapore majoring in Global Studies and specialising in East Asia, Foreign and Public Policy, and the French language. Michael is interested in global governance and international relations and enjoys reading history and literary classics.


Endnotes

[1] “Top 50 World Container Ports,” World Shipping Council, 2019, http://www.worldshipping.org/about-the-industry/global-trade/top-50-world-container-ports.

[2] James X. Morris, “KMT Shocks With Its Success in Taiwan Elections,” The Diplomat, November 27, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/11/kmt-shocks-with-its-success-in-taiwan-elections/.

Bibliography

Morries, James X. “KMT Shocks With Its Success in Taiwan Elections.” The Diplomat. November 27, 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2018/11/kmt-shocks-with-its-success-in-taiwan-elections/.

“Top 50 World Container Ports.” World Shipping Council. 2019. http://www.worldshipping.org/about-the-industry/global-trade/top-50-world-container-ports.

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