KMT stumbling may mean the spectre of Beijing is losing its potency in Taipei

Author: Sheryn Lee, ANU

Politically and economically, 2014 proved to be an extremely bad year for President Ma Ying-jeou and his ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party. Economic stagnation and public discontent over worsening social disparities continue to plague Taiwan. Mass demonstrations indicate that Taiwan’s citizens have much more pressing concerns than Taiwan–China relations.

Ko Wen-je, the independent candidate who was elected mayor of Taipei in Taiwan’s local nine-in-one elections, delivers his victory speech after edging Sean Lien, a candidate of the ruling Kuomitang party, 29 November 2014. (Photo: AAP).

The KMT faced criticism for a host of economic woes: slow growth, rising labour costs, stagnant wages, excessive regulation of businesses, increased competition from countries such as South Korea, and widening income inequality. The KMT pushed for closer relations with China, arguing that further economic integration would be beneficial to local businesses and people. Senior officials from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office and Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council met for the first time in February and June.

But the public is increasingly sceptical of Chinese influence. China’s campaign to woo Taiwan through preferential economic arrangements heightened domestic concerns that closer trade with the mainland will make Taiwan more dependent on China. Many Taiwanese people are concerned about whether and how these arrangements could be beneficial to them, as it is clear they are a stepping stone for Beijing to open political discussions on unification. An overwhelming 76.8 per cent support the current status quo, with only 1.4 per cent desiring unification as soon as possible.

It has become clear to many that forging closer relations with China is not the solution to Taiwan’s socio-economic problems. These problems are long-term in nature, and endemic to a political and economic system that has been independent from the mainland since 1949.

The KMT also faced a barrage of criticism over its domestic policies. Public discontent mounted to mass protests on issues including corruption over the ‘Gutter Oil’ incident, controversial education reform, and construction of Taiwan’s fourth nuclear power plant.

Political protests like these are common in Taiwan. But sit-ins such as the Sunflower Movement are unprecedented in its two decades as a democracy. Between 18 March and 10 April demonstrators — mainly students and civic groups — occupied Taiwan’s legislature, the Legislative Yuan. It was a response to the KMT’s attempt to unilaterally pass the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) through the legislature, which would have removed certain cross-Strait trade barriers. The movement claimed the deal would lead to an influx of Chinese competition that would overwhelm local businesses. As a result, the CSSTA was postponed until legal reviews of all cross-Strait agreements are passed.

The devastating results of the 29 November local ‘nine-in-one’ elections reflected the public’s lack of confidence in President Ma and the KMT. It was their biggest electoral defeat since 1949. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 13 of the 22 cities and counties, the Independents won 3, while the KMT’s number dropped from 15 to 6. The DPP won 47.6 per cent of the popular vote, the KMT only 40.7 per cent. President Ma resigned as chairman of the KMT and his 81-member cabinet also stepped down. They will serve as caretakers until the new Premier selects a new line-up.

But this may not mean smooth sailing for the DPP, either. Recent survey results on party preference show that 45.5 per cent identify with the independents or did not record a response — compared with 25.6 per cent for the DPP and 23.5 per cent for the KMT. The 2016 national elections, then, might not be a clear-cut DPP win, despite what the local elections might suggest. There could be a large swing vote. Taiwan’s political parties will have to contend with a growing civil society — one that identifies mainly as Taiwanese and no longer shows allegiance to any party. It is likely that both the KMT and DPP will move closer to the centre, with cross-Strait policies no longer remaining at the forefront.

Even if the DPP were to win national elections in 2016, it will face the same political and economic challenges that the KMT did, and it is far from clear that they have any better solutions. Adding to rising public discontent and economic problems is a declining birth rate — Taiwan has the world’s third-lowest fertility rate (1.3 children born per woman) — as well as a rapidly ageing population.

Whether it’s the DPP or KMT that emerges victorious from the next national election, both will have to find workable solutions to these systemic problems, which do not have a China policy dimension. For Taiwan, this year of discontent has demonstrated that the public wants the government to focus on issues at home, rather than cross-Strait concerns.

Sheryn Lee is a PhD candidate at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, the Australian National University.