Taiwanese elections are a wake up call for China

As long as Beijing remains authoritarian, it is hard to see how it can reconcile itself with voters from democratic Taiwan.

Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang party (KMT) just got comprehensively trounced in local elections over the weekend, losing many key municipal and local council seats to the opposition party as well as independents. It is one of the worst defeats for the ruling party since it fled from mainland China to form an exile government in Taiwan. The KMT won only six out of 22 seats for city and local governments, far fewer than the 15 it won in the last election four years ago.

The ruling party also lost its former strongholds of Taipei and Taichung, which were considered to be safe ‘blue seats’ that have traditionally supported the KMT. The landslide defeat forced the resignation of the country’s premier Jiang Yi-Huah. The embattled president Ma Ying-jeou is also under pressure to resign his party chairmanship.

Though the relationship with mainland China did not feature prominently in the election, it was widely seen as one of the key deciding factors in the outcome of the election. President Ma and his party have made improving economic ties with Mainland China one of their highest policy priorities.

Though Ma’s policy considerably deescalated the tension across the Taiwan Straits to the collective relief of both Beijing and Washington, the president has failed to sell the benefits of improving ties with mainland China to voters -- especially the younger generation.

Early this year, Taiwanese students like their peers in Hong Kong took to the streets in protest against the services agreement with the Mainland which would give Taiwanese businesses unprecedented access to the Chinese market.  Students were concerned about further economic integration with the Communist ruled mainland despite potential economic benefits of the agreement.

Beijing’s refusal to acknowledge democratic aspiration of Hong Kong voters also went down badly in Taiwan as students continue to occupy the island’s central business district for the second month. Many Taiwanese simply don’t fancy becoming the second Hong Kong.

The election result is a wake up call for many parties involved in managing the delicate cross-straits relationship.  The decidedly hostile attitude towards mainland China in both Taiwan and Hong Kong show the limits of Beijing’s economic charm offensive. Voters are not sold on the benefits of a further economic integration with China, instead they fear to live under the shadow of an increasingly assertive Beijing.

Beijing needs to think about its strategy towards Taiwan and Hong Kong; its policy is clearly not working and does not appeal to younger people who remain less sentimental towards mainland China than their parent’s generation. In Taiwan, even children from staunchly pro-China KMT families are turning towards the pro-independence party.

As long as Beijing remains authoritarian, it is hard to see how it can reconcile itself with voters from democratic Taiwan.

The election result also poses an existential crisis for the ruling KMT party, which has its roots in Mainland China as the party that overthrew the last Manchu imperial dynasty. Though the party has been engaging in the constant process of localisation in Taiwan to adopt the country’s new democratic environment, it can’t completely shake off its Chinese heritage. After all, the party is still called the Chinese Nationalist party that pledges its fealty to the founder of the Republic of China, Dr Sun Yat-sen.

Sean Chen, a former premier of Taiwan and a non-active KMT member told China Spectator that the KMT had no future in China. Even though he thinks the party must localise in Taiwan for its own survival, he believes the KMT must also aim for a higher goal such as serving a broader global Chinese community.

How does a political party with strong mainland Chinese roots survive in an increasingly Taiwanese society is a big challenge for KMT leaders. If they cannot abandon their Chinese heritage, it more or less destroys its own reason for existence. It may suffer a similar fate to that of the Japanese Socialist Party in the 1990s when it abandoned its pacifist platform, the party disintegrated.

The opposition Democratic Progress Party (DPP), which supports Taiwanese independence, must also pause and rethink about its approach with Mainland China. Under the last DPP government, the cross-straits relationship sank to its nadir, sparking fears of military confrontation that could send the whole region into an unthinkable conflagration.

The local Taiwanese election results is a wakeup call for both Chinese Communist Party in Beijing as well as Taiwan’s ruling KMT. Selling the benefits of economic engagement with China is no longer enough to persuade voters , both parties need to come up with a better narrative to keep estranged Taiwanese voters on their side.