November 27, 2014, by editor
Just how local are local elections in Taiwan?
Written by Michal Thim.
Looking to local elections for clues as to how this or that party will fare in national elections is a precarious thing. Professor Shelley Rigger has argued earlier on this blog that Saturday’s elections should not be seen as a referendum on the KMT government and she makes many good points in support of that argument. The great majority of seats (over 7,000 out of 11,130) up for grabs are borough (里長) and village wardens (村長) who typically run close contact campaigns within their constituencies, relying on personal contact and track records, much more so than candidates higher up on the governance ladder. It is commonplace for pan-Green supporters to votes for pan-Blue affiliated wardens (many wardens run as independents but have KMT connections).
The Taipei mayoral race is the one most closely watched for implications of what defeat would mean for the KMT in 2016. But Taipei is a contest where independent candidate Ko Wen-je’s prospective victory would embody the rejection of partisan party politics that for nearly three decades has shaped the fundamental political divide in Taiwan. There is reason to believe that the KMT candidate Sean Lien would have fared much better against a DPP opponent.
In general, issues discussed during campaign address issues related to the needs of particular constituencies (although KMT’s latest campaign effort to sway voters in Taipei may lead us to believe that Taipei mayor has any role in issues like China-Korea FTA). Campaign for legislative and presidential elections will be addressing different issues, among them most prominently cross-Strait relations, issue not strongly present during 9-in-1 election campaign.
But let’s not discard the local-national connection so quickly. Perhaps it is useful not only to look what influence have local elections on national politics (i.e. what results tell us about elections in 2016) but also the other way round: how national politics influence local elections.
Firstly, not all the positions are entirely “local.” Mayors of the six special municipalities (including Taoyuan which will officially adopt that status in December) control considerable resources and two out of three voters nationwide live in one of these six big constituencies. Moreover, most of the candidates have been linked in one way or another to national politics. Eric Chu seeking re-election in New Taipei City is a prospective presidential candidate for the KMT in 2016. Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu and Tainan mayor William Lai are important figures within the DPP. Taipei Mayor has long been considered a stepping stone to the Presidential Office. Both Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou were Taipei mayors before assuming the highest office (the current mayor, Hau Long-bin, who is standing down, is another frontrunner for the KMT nomination in 2016). Whether Ko Wen-je would have presidential ambitions if elected is pure speculation at this point. Even Sean Lien, in the unlikely event that he wins the race in Taipei, with his family connections behind him, would be in a good position to run for president in 2020.
Secondly, DPP and KMT leaders’ presence in the campaign give hints of overlap between local and national politics. Tsai Ing-wen is not only touring around Taiwan to give support to DPP candidates, she is also visible on campaign posters nationwide. Moreover, Tsai and other DPP heavyweights’ presence is especially strong in Central Taiwan (Nantou County, Taichung, Changhua County – all held by KMT after the 2010 elections), which has turned out to be a major battleground for votes. Tsai’s presence can be partly explained by her duty as DPP chairwoman, but these elections are also the forerunner to her candidacy ambitions for 2016. KMT’s leader Ma Ying-jeou is considerably less visible in KMT candidates’ campaign. He made appearances during some campaign rallies (including a short cameo on behalf of Sean Lien) but mercifully for his party colleagues he has kept a low profile. Unlike DPP candidates’ embrace of their Chairwoman, you won’t often see Ma Ying-jeou standing next to KMT candidates on the stump in their constituencies. Ma’s physical absence can be explained by security concerns and his presidential duties. But more strikingly, Ma is absent from any campaign posters. It is as if candidates for the KMT at all levels do not wish to be associated with the unpopular president.
Thirdly, the presidential nomination process and the 2016 campaigns will start soon after the dust settles on the weekend contests. The results of local elections will boost the morale of the winning party, and dampen enthusiasm for the losing party. The public will take notice. This effect will not last for long but analysis of victory/defeat may have impact on the way the following campaign will be executed.
Fourthly, even the most local candidates rely on access to resources. It is true that many borough and village wardens run on their personal record and issues closely related to their particular neighbourhoods. However, for voters it may not be all they will be considering. In the areas where DPP is leading according to polls, voters may give preference to wardens with DPP support, anticipating rewards from above. In another words, voters may be betting against KMT’s prospects to hold power in the municipal governments and, ultimately, control of the central government after 2016.
For both major political parties there are likely consequences of Saturdays’ elections, having 2016 already on the horizon. The DPP should not get over-confident about its 2016 prospects. When the campaign for presidential and legislative elections starts, it will be again on the weaker side regarding its China policy. Not necessarily because its version of it is worse or reflect less public’s opinion but simply because the KMT has been so insistent on the narrative of ‘1992 consensus’ being the only basis for cross-Strait relations, aided in this effort by Beijing (which for a long time disputed its very existence). The DPP will face once again face an uphill battle trying to formulate a China policy that would be credible for undecided middle ground voters. By then, the 2014 results will be long forgotten.
The KMT will face some losses with near certainty. However, the result shouldn’t be disastrous. A closer look (i.e. one beyond the results of the six ‘super-mayor’ races) will give a better assessment of the impact on the KMT’s hold on local government. Potential DPP (or independent in case of Ko Wen-je) mayors and commissioners may face KMT majorities in respective councils, thus prolonging the KMT’s capacity to make ruling harder for local governments. Even with really bad results, the KMT need not despair about its prospects in 2016. At least not because of the results itself. However, a campaign style partly depending on the “fear factor” may not be efficient this or next time. The sense of loss (and actual loss of control over some resources) may further escalate the fight between KMT factions that will seek to win the presidential candidate nomination. Whether the party will follow numerous polls indicating that the best option would be Eric Chu, or choose one of two “princelings” Hau Lung-bin or even Sean Lien, could exacerbate latent cleavages in the party.
Ultimately, we do not really know for certain the extent to which the electorate considers national issues when voting in local elections. As observers we will be better off not to overemphasize the implications of Saturday’s results for the 2016 elections. However, even local elections are happening in a national context and the next big national elections are coming too soon to entirely discard the connections between them.
Michal Thim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute (CPI), University of Nottingham, a CPI blog Emerging Scholar, and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. Michal tweets @michalthim. Image Credit: CC by gava.gava/Flickr.