Why the Taiwan Midterm Elections Matter

On November 24, millions of Taiwanese will vote for more than 11,000 mayors, councilors, and other officials nationwide in a key midterm election—only the country’s fifth since the victory of Chen Shui-Bian in 2000 ended decades of continuousrule by the Kuomintang party. Four factors from the midterms will impact the 2020 presidential election, cross-Strait relations, and the future of the 23.5 million people living in this island nation. These key issues have critical implications that observers watching both sides of the Taiwan Strait should focus on.

The Rise of the “Third Force”

Taiwan has two dominant political parties: The Kuomintang (KMT) remains more amenable to reunification with mainland China, while President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leans towards independence. But the three-year-old New Power Party (NPP), led by 2014 Sunflower Movement leader Huang Kuo-chang and heavy metal musician-turned-politician Freddy Lim, has become a player in Taiwanese politics—it now holds five out of 113 seats in parliament, the third highest total behind the two major parties. Although the NPP and the DPP coordinated in the 2016 election to defeat the KMT, the two parties regularly disagree with each other, and some discontented members of Taiwan’s pro-independence movement switched support from the DPP to the NPP.

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Sunflower Protestors Open Up

Chien-min Chung
On March 18 some 200 Taiwanese, mostly college students, stormed the offices of Taiwan’s legislature, beginning a protest over a proposed trade agreement between the self-governed island and mainland China, which considers it a “renegade province.”...

In this midterm, the NPP is fielding 40 city council candidates throughout Taiwan. While significantly fewer than the 493 candidates fielded by the KMT and 407 candidates fielded by the DPP, 40 is by far the most candidates out of any third party in Taiwan. This may split the vote in a number of critical races. The NPP has expansive ambitions to sideline the KMT and compete with the DPP as equals: This election will serve as a bellwether for its performance in the 2020 election and its ability to accomplish these goals.

Meanwhile, other post-Sunflower “Third Force” parties, including the Social Democratic Party, Trees Party, and Radical Party, are also fielding candidates. This midterm election and the next presidential election will test whether the “Third Force” will last, or whether the two dominant parties will destroy or absorb the smaller parties.

Referendums on Gay Marriage and Other Issues

In May 2017, the island’s highest court mandated parliament to legalize same-sex unionswithin two years. However, in this election there is a competing set of referendums addressing same-sex marriage and same-sex education in school curriculum. They are part of a broader set of nationwide referendums held on many issues, including the name Taiwan will use in the 2020 Olympics, nuclear energy, and coal-burning power plants, among others.

The December 2017 Referendum Act lowered the thresholds for initiating and passing referendums.While referendums cannot yet decide issues of independence and unification, activists continue to push for changes to the Referendum Act to allow for a referendum on Taiwan’s formal independence from China. The upcoming referendum to decide whether Taiwan will participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics under “Chinese Taipei” or another name is seen as a means towards that end.

Ko Wen-je

Perhaps the most consequential race this midterm is the Taipei mayoral election, the most high-profile position in Taiwan after the presidency. In 2014, the political newcomer and surgeon Ko Wen-je became the first independent mayor ever elected in Taipei. Currently leading in opinion polls and the star of a viral rap video, Ko is almost guaranteed to win reelection. An August 2018 poll suggests that Ko would be the most popular candidate in the 2020 election if he chose to run—even more so than President Tsai.

Although in 2014 Ko received the endorsement of the DPP, which did not field its own candidate that year, his position on cross-Strait relations and his political alignment remain unclear. For example, he has aggravated pro-independence cohorts by referring to both sides of the Taiwan Strait as “one family,” but also spoke of “three things that disgust me mosquitos, flies, and the KMT.” While Ko has attempted to maintain good relations with pro-independence politicians in the NPP, he has also publicly appeared with pro-unification politicians such as James Soong of the People First Party and the convicted gangster Chang An-lo, known as “White Wolf.” Although Beijing would prefer a KMT president in Taiwan in 2020, it is more likely to settle with Ko than another four years of Tsai.

Will the KMT Return?

The KMT suffered major defeats in the 2014 legislative election and the 2016 presidential election, in part because young voters increasingly identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. In the midterms, the KMT seeks to capitalize on declining approval ratings for the DPP, which have recently dropped to a record-low 19.8 percent. Dissatisfaction with the DPP may lead some to vote for the KMT as a show of displeasure with the ruling party, and it is unlikely that the DPP will retain its majority control of Taiwan’s six special municipalities. However, the inability of the KMT to assert a coherent political vision makes it unlikely to win a majority in parliament.



There Is Only One China, And There Is Only One Taiwan

Richard Bernstein
One of Beijing’s least favorite people is Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, who won a landslide election victory 18 months ago on a platform calling for more separation from China—a coded way of rejecting one of the mainland’s most sacred principles...

To survive, the KMT needs to recapture some of the youth vote. Over the last year, it has tried everything from making rap campaign videos to holding a cartoon mascot competition online—but these endeavors have incited mockery, not support.

The career politician Han Kuo-yu, running for mayor in Taiwan’s second largest city Kaohsiung, is the only noteworthy KMT candidate. Traditionally a DPP stronghold, Kaohsiung may actually elect Han. But Han’s sudden viral popularity has led to allegations about Chinese interference in Taiwanese elections through the spread of fake news and misinformation, and he has been running a campaign which disingenuously frames him as a political outsider. To the disappointment of Beijing, it will likely be another bad year for the KMT.