No clear victory, no clear defeat in the special municipality elections on Nov. 27, and still a lot of uncertainty over their ramifications for the future
Despite a favorable outcome to the much-anticipated Nov. 27 municipal elections, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) remained cautiously optimistic on Saturday after the opposition increased its lead in the popular vote.
After several weeks of boisterous campaigning, Taiwanese went to the polls on Saturday to vote for mayors, city councilors and borough chiefs in the special municipalities of Taipei City, Sinbei City, Greater Taichung, Greater Tainan and Greater Kaohsiung.
In what some had portrayed as a mid-term election for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and a preview of the 2012 presidential election, the KMT succeeded in retaining its hold in the northern municipalities of Taipei and Sinbei (Taipei County, which will be upgraded to special municipality status later this month) and Taichung, in central Taiwan. For its part, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) retained Tainan and Kaohsiung. Voter turnout was an impressive 71.71 percent.
In the lead-up to the elections, both parties had argued that winning three municipalities would be considered “overall victory.” During the last weeks of what turned out to be essentially clean electoral campaigns, the races in Sinbei, historically split between the pan-green and pan-blue camps, and Taipei, a pan-blue stronghold, became increasingly close — indeed too close to call.
The race in Taipei, the capital city, pitted incumbent Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) of the KMT against former premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) of the DPP, with three other candidates running as independents. Despite Su running a highly successful campaign, and notwithstanding a Hau administration that was plagued with allegations of corruption over the Taipei International Flora Expo, the incumbent defeated his opponent by an unexpectedly wide margin, with 797,865, or 55.65 percent of the vote, against Su’s 628,129, or 43.81 percent.
In Sinbei, the nation’s largest municipality, former vice premier Eric Chu (朱立倫) of the KMT defeated DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) with 1,115,536 votes, or 52.61 percent, against Tsai’s 1,004,900, or 47.39 percent.
The greatest surprise occurred in Greater Taichung, where incumbent Jason Hu (胡志強) of the KMT, who was expected to easily defeat Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) of the DPP, only did so by a razor-thin margin, with 730,284 votes, or 51.12 percent, to Su’s 698,358, or 48.88 percent. It is also noteworthy that Su, who had been parachuted into Taichung only six months prior to the election, defeated the colorful, Beijing-born Hu in every riding in Taichung County.
The elections in the DPP strongholds of Tainan and Kaohsiung, meanwhile, were the only two races that were never close. In Greater Tainan, William Lai (賴清德) of the DPP obtained 619,897 votes, or 60.41 percent, against his KMT opponent, Kuo Tien-tsai (郭添財), with 406,196 votes, or 39.59 percent. In Greater Kaohsiung, incumbent mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) of the DPP won the three-way race with more than twice the votes of her two opponents combined. Chen obtained 821,089 votes, or 52.80 percent, to Yang Chiu-hsing (楊秋興) — who quit the DPP to run as an independent after losing the primary to Chen — with 414,950 votes, or 26.68 percent, and the KMT’s Huang Chao-shun (黃昭順), who came third with 319,171 votes, or 20.52 percent.
It remains to be seen if, or to what degree, a shooting incident on election eve in Yonghe City, Taipei County, involving former KMT chairman Lien Chan’s son, Sean Lien, who was shot in the face by a local gangster during a KMT rally, and in which a bystander was killed, affected the vote. Initial assessments put the impact at 3 percent, which though insufficient to alter the outcome in Taipei City, could have done so in Sinbei and Taichung.
In the city council elections, both parties ended up with 130 seats of the overall 314 in the five municipalities, with 45 going to independents and the rest to smaller political parties.
In terms of share of total vote, which is where the notion of a KMT victory may sound hollow, the DPP obtained 3,772,373 votes, or 49.78 percent, to the KMT’s 3,369,052, or 44.54 percent, a difference of almost 400,000 votes (independents accounted for 422,692 votes). To put this in context, during the presidential election in 2008, the KMT obtained 58.45 percent of the total vote against the DPP’s 41.55 percent. Consequently, Saturday’s election, which accounted for about 60 of the total electorate, can be regarded as a dramatic turnaround for the opposition party, which only two years ago, was devastated amid allegations of corruption against former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and badly defeated in legislative elections.
For the DPP, Su Tseng-chang’s and Tsai’s defeats could be a blessing in disguise, as both had been touted as potential candidates in the 2012 presidential election, in which Ma is widely expected to run. Had they won, they would either have been unable to run, or would have faced the difficult choice of cutting their four-year term short and risk alienating the electorate. Su’s weaker-than-expected showing, however, may have undermined his prospects for a presidential ticket.
A power struggle over party leadership is now emerging, which could threaten Tsai’s position, and party stability, after she succeeded in reconsolidating the DPP. On Nov. 29, former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), along with “kung-ma” (or “elder”) faction members, called on Tsai to step down, a tradition in Taiwanese politics following electoral defeat. So far Tsai said she would not do so, and has the backing of the DPP legislative caucus.
As for the KMT, some officials and pan-blue media are portraying the results as endorsement for Ma, who campaigned energetically for the candidates of his party (of which he is chairman), and his pro-China policies. Conversely, others are arguing that the KMT’s loss in the popular vote could force the Ma administration to slow down cross-strait development.
In the end, however, references to the popular vote as an indicator of the 2012 election can only be taken so far, as Saturday’s elections involved predominantly local matters, while the presidential election will entail national policies, such as rapprochement with China, which remains controversial among the Taiwanese polity.
This analysis appeared in slightly different and abridged format in Jane’s Intelligence Weekly on Dec. 6. See also my comments on the elections in The Diplomat magazine [English] [Chinese].