Saturday’s five special municipality elections for mayors and city councilors left both the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) disappointed. The KMT took three of the five mayoral seats, but the DPP won the overall popular vote by more than 400,000 votes, or more than 5 percent.
In the city council races, the DPP won an increased proportion of seats, equaling the KMT’s number of seats, but its overall total of the vote trailed the KMT by 3 percent.
What do these results imply for the future, especially the presidential and legislative elections of 2012?
First, Taiwan is blessed with a very large percentage of “swing voters” or “middle voters.” These voters, who account for about 20 percent of the electorate, make a decision on how to vote by examining the candidates and the issues prior to each election. Thus, many people who voted for former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in 2000 and 2004, voted for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in 2008. These voters come from all walks of life and are an asset in the maturation of Taiwan’s democracy.
Second, the strong geographical pattern of a “green south and a blue north” has continued. Thus, southern Taiwan continues to strongly support the DPP, while the north continues to vote for the KMT. Geographical -political differences are common in many countries and this pattern clearly continues to the present in Taiwan.
Third, winning in Taipei continues to remain an “impossible” goal for the DPP, which has never won a majority of votes in the nation’s capital. Taipei has the largest concentration of Mainlanders (those Chinese who relocated to Taiwan with the ROC national government in 1949, and their descendants) in Taiwan and repeated surveys have demonstrated that Mainlanders continue to vote for the KMT en masse. Thus, more than 80 percent will vote for a candidate identifiable as a Mainlander if given a choice between a Mainlander and a “local” candidate. Political scientists call this “defensive voting.”
Taiwanese, Hakka and Aboriginal voters are all much more likely to vote for someone from another demographic group.
Mainlanders frequently complain about “discrimination,” but in fact discrimination by social group began under the rule of former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and it is the Mainlanders who have continued to play this card, despite the arrival of democracy.
The best record for the DPP in Taipei in any election was in 1998 when Chen received 45.9 percent of the vote after four years as mayor in which it was widely accepted that he had greatly reformed municipal government in Taipei. Indeed, his vote tally was greater than when he was elected mayor in 1994 (when he won over the divided “blue” forces), but he still lost to Ma. By achieving 43.8 percent of the vote, Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) achieved the highest DPP vote since Chen in 1998.
Su ran an excellent campaign, one that even KMT leaders privately praised. In addition, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin’s (郝龍斌) tenure has had numerous shortcomings, but Su could not overcome the prejudice of Taipei’s Mainlanders.
What are the implications for the 2012 presidential and legislative elections? First, the DPP has clearly begun to pull back from the devastation of the 2008 elections. In two years, the party has returned from utter demoralization to become a contender again. In terms of votes, the DPP is now even with the KMT and in the presidential election all votes are absolutely equal in value.
Second, despite the KMT winning three of the five mayoral seats, the Ma government continues to do poorly in surveys with an approval rating well under 40 percent. The Cabinet under Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) has done much better than the Mainlander dominated Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) Cabinet, but the Ma presidency has yet to implement its 2008 campaign slogan that: “Everything will be fine immediately.”
Just as voters in 2008 voted for Ma because they believed Chen’s presidency had failed, so to in 2012 voters will vote for the DPP if they believe the Ma government has failed.
Finally, the DPP must continue to focus on unity. In nominating its candidates for president and vice-president for 2012, it must choose experienced politicians with strong track records. The DPP must work for the good of Taiwan as a whole, not for the temporary benefit of some self-centered politicians, and it must continue its current trend of promoting practical policies that benefit Taiwan and its population, rather than a divisive ideology.
Repeated surveys show that the vast majority of Taiwanese agree on ideology. They value Taiwan’s democracy and they agree that Taiwan should maintain the “status quo,” which means it should remain de facto independent. This important consensus about Taiwan and its future will set the parameters for the election debates and policies in the 2012 elections.
Bruce Jacobs is a professor of Asian languages and studies and director of Monash University’s Taiwan Research Unit in Melbourne, Australia.
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