Taiwanese Voters Say No to Ma Ying-jeou


In Taiwan’s November 2014 local elections, the ruling party suffered greater-than-expected losses, further weakening the position of President Ma Ying-jeou. Why did the Kuomintang fare so poorly, and what lies ahead for Taiwan and its relations with mainland China?

A Bigger-than-Expected Defeat for the Kuomintang

Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT, Nationalist Party) suffered severe losses in the nationwide local elections on November 29, 2014. Of the 22 counties and cities whose magistrates and mayors were up for election, the KMT, which previously held 15, won only 6, while the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which had held 6, captured 13 of the posts, more than doubling its strength. Among Taiwan’s six most populous cities (“special municipalities”), the KMT, which previously controlled four mayoralties (Taipei, New Taipei, Taoyuan, and Taichung), held on to just one (New Taipei), while the DPP, which previously held just two (Tainan and Kaohsiung), took another two (Taoyuan and Taichung), bringing its total to four.  And in Taipei, the de facto capital, the KMT lost to an anti-KMT independent candidate.

Looking at the vote shares, we find that the KMT’s was 40.7%, down 5 points from its 45.8% figure in the previous round of local elections in 2009–10. The DPP’s share declined slightly from 48.2% to 47.6%, while independent candidates’ share jumped from 6.0% to 11.7%. The low level of the ruling party’s share is even clearer if we compare it with the 51.6% of the vote that its leader, Ma Ying-jeou, won in his successful bid for reelection as Taiwan’s president in 2012. The slippage in the DPP’s vote share was a result of it not putting up a candidate in the race for mayor of Taipei. Even without any votes from the populous capital city, the top opposition party was able to win a share close to the 2009–10 figure thanks to the increase in its votes from other municipalities and counties.

The scale of the KMT’s losses was far greater than had been expected, and the outcome can be seen as a resounding negative verdict from Taiwan’s voters on the administration of President Ma, who has been in office since May 2008.

Results of Elections for 22 Local Government Heads in Taiwan

  2009–10 2014
KMT Keelung City, Taipei, New Taipei, Taoyuan, Hsinchu County, Hsinchu City, Miaoli County, Taichung, Changhua County, Nantou County, Chiayi City, Taitung County, Penghu County, Kinmen County, Lienchiang County (15 counties/cities) New Taipei, Hsinchu County, Miaoli County, Nantou County, Taitung County, Lienchiang County (6)
DPP Yunlin County, Chiayi County, Tainan, Kaohsiung, Pingtung County, Yilan County (6) Keelung City, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Taichung, Changhua County, Yunlin County, Chiayi County, Chiayi City, Tainan, Kaohsiung, Pingtung County, Yilan County, Penghu County (13)
Independent Hualien County (1) Taipei, Hualien County, Kinmen County (3)

Notes: Underlining marks special municipalities, which have high populations. Blue marks counties and cities that the KMT previously held but lost in the 2014 elections.

President Ma’s Efforts Backfire

Following his reelection in 2012, President Ma’s performance was lackluster, and his approval ratings sagged. Though data showed the economy to be growing, relatively few sensed this in their own lives; this was the key factor behind popular dissatisfaction. The KMT held a majority in the Legislative Yuan, but even so the government was having a hard time getting legislation enacted. Seeing the resulting delay in policy implementation as the cause of his low level of support, in September 2013 Ma sought to oust Wang Jin-pyng from his post as speaker of the Legislative Yuan. But the public rallied behind Wang, and Ma’s maneuver failed, with the result that his administration’s prestige was damaged. And in March 2014 the “Sunflower Movement” arose, with students protesting against the Ma administration’s ploy to push through a pact on trade with China. This movement also won broad popular support and dealt a further blow to the administration.

Seeking to reverse his fortunes and establish his historical reputation, President Ma next tried to arrange to attend the November 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing and stage a top-level meeting with the Chinese leadership, but this initiative also backfired on him. And a further blow came with the uncovering of a food safety scandal in September 2014 involving shipments of cooking oil tainted with waste products. The government’s response to the case was tardy, and the damage to the Ma administration was heightened by the fact that the major cooking oil producer identified as the source of the adulterated oil was a company that achieved great growth by doing business with China and that had strong personal ties with figures in the KMT.

The DPP’s Dramatic Advance

Some observers suggest that even though the KMT suffered a loss in the November 2014 elections, the opposition DPP did not gain increased support. But the fall of the KMT and rise of the DPP was not limited to the elections for local government heads; the same trends were seen in the voting for local assembly members. If we look at the vote shares in the local assembly elections for all of Taiwan’s counties and cities, we find that the KMT won just 36.9% of the votes, down 3.7 points from the previous set of elections, while the DPP won 37.1%, up 5.8 points. It was the first time the DPP took a larger share of the votes than the KMT.

Out of the total of 907 local assembly seats, the KMT took 386, down 33 from the last time, and the DPP took 291, up 33. By this measure the KMT seems to still be in the lead, but its numerical strength comes from its ability to pick up seats in electoral districts made up of farming and fishing villages and depopulated mountainous areas. The bulk of the local assembly members who identify themselves with the KMT consists of members of local factions and political families with their own support groups. The DPP has found it hard to unseat such incumbents, but this time it succeeded in making a breakthrough. Its increased vote share should be seen as an indication that the election was not merely a setback for Ma on the surface but also a seismic shift that advanced the fortunes of the top opposition party.

The Wind of Change Blows in Taipei

The biggest focus of attention in the November 2014 elections was the race for mayor of Taipei. Instead of running its own candidate, the DPP joined in an opposition coalition backing an independent candidate, Ko Wen-je, who roundly defeated the KMT’s Sean Lien (Lien Sheng-wen). Ko, while opposing the KMT, also kept his distance from the DPP, and he was even able to win over KMT members disillusioned with President Ma by calling for an end to the politics of confrontation between the blue camp (favoring closer ties with China) and the green camp (favoring independence for Taiwan).  And in contrast to Lien, whose bumbling campaign was the object of online mockery seen all across Taiwan, Ko’s distinctive electioneering received favorable coverage both in the media and on the Internet. Ko’s successful performance in Taipei, a bastion of KMT support, had the effect of luring voters away from the ruling party and increasing the numbers of votes won by the DPP in other cities and counties as well.

Ko Wen-je, running as an independent candidate for mayor of Taipei, speaks to a mini rally on November 14, 2014. Ko’s casual, lighthearted delivery won wide popularity. He attributed the drop in support for his opponent, the KMT’s Sean Lien, to the “Sunflower Movement” earlier in the year.

During the campaign, attention focused on the fact that Sean Lien is the eldest son of Lien Chan, honorary chairman of the KMT, and has great wealth. This attention was related to the increased wariness toward China that was promoted by the “Sunflower Movement” earlier in the year. Sociologists in Taiwan had been presenting the concept of the “cross-strait elite,” referring to those who are profiting from deep involvement in the structure of political and economic ties between Taiwan and China; for many people this was just an abstract notion, but Sean Lien’s emergence gave an actual face to the concept.

Cross-strait relations were not explicitly raised as an issue in the November 2014 elections, but the campaign for mayor of Taipei promoted public skepticism toward the Ma administration’s moves to increase economic interaction between Taiwan and China, and this sentiment indirectly affected the KMT’s electoral fortunes. One businessman who has achieved great success through dealings with China and who backs Ma’s efforts to promote cross-strait ties made a number of speeches pledging to make huge investments if the KMT was victorious in local elections, but the ruling party ended up being defeated in all the counties and cities where he spoke.

Disarray Within the KMT

On the night of November 29, after the vote counting was over, President Ma, while acknowledging the KMT’s defeat, declared that he intended to continue leading the party. But the next day, facing a chorus of calls criticizing him for not taking responsibility for the rout, he changed his mind and decided to step down as KMT chairman. This sudden development threw the ruling party into confusion, and a power struggle began under the surface regarding the choice of a successor.  New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu (Chu Li-luan) was the only candidate to register, however, so he will run unopposed in the party chairmanship election on January 17. Although he will work to renovate the KMT, Chu has already declared that he does not intend to run in the 2016 election for Ma’s successor as president of Taiwan.

Chu had been seen as the top KMT candidate to succeed Ma as president, but in the November election for mayor of New Taipei he barely managed to defeat a relatively weak challenger from the DPP. This lackluster performance sapped his political momentum, and the disarray within the KMT seems likely to continue even after he assumes the party chairmanship. Some within the party are even suggesting that Ma should resign as president. The next presidential election is expected to be held in January 2016. With only about a year to go, the KMT will find it very hard to free itself from the negative legacy of the Ma administration before then.

The DPP, meanwhile, is likely to gain further momentum. Before the local elections there had been doubts about the leadership abilities of Tsai Ing-wen, the woman who became the opposition party’s chair in May 2014. But her campaign strategy, which focused on the contests in central Taiwan, proved highly successful (with the DPP winning in Taichung and Changhua County), and this outcome has put her in a stronger position.

The DPP has won control of 13 counties and cities, where the chief executives have authority over personnel, budget drafting, and various discretionary matters. The mayors of the special municipalities wield especially great power. In Taoyuan, for example, the mayor appoints the chiefs of the 28 departments and bureaus of the municipal government and heads of the city’s 12 wards. The number of appointees swells much further if we include posts at external organizations like Taoyuan Aerotropolis Corporation. The local governments in question will not turn into election machines for the DPP, but the KMT has lost the sway it previously held over them, and this is bound to be a plus for the DPP in the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Increased Wariness in Beijing

In the wake of the “no” verdict from voters in the November 2014 local elections, Ma Ying-jeou felt compelled to resign from the chairmanship of the KMT, a post that is a key source of power. It is as if the president of China were to resign as general secretary of the Communist Party. The Chinese Communist leaders have presumably raised their guard after seeing what an impact even “mere” local elections can have. I believe they have probably become even more determined not to allow regular popular elections on the mainland or in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, though, many people within China have learned that such elections are being held in Taiwan. The Communist Party of China continues to spread the line that Taiwan’s democratic politics are flawed, but some Chinese are jealous of the free elections that are held there. Taiwan is dwarfed by China in terms of military and economic power, but the November 2014 elections highlighted its role as a beacon of democracy. It will be instructive to see how the Xi Jinping administration in Beijing responds.

(Originally written in Japanese on December 15, 2014. Title photo: Supporters of independent candidate Ko Wen-je celebrate his victory in the election for mayor of Taipei on November 29, 2014. © AP/Aflo)

China Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou Kuomintang Democratic Progressive Party Xi Jinping local elections Sunflower Movement Taipei