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Taiwan’s midterm elections, biggest ever, key test for ruling, opposition parties

by Ko Shu-Ling

Kyodo

In November, Taiwan will hold its largest election ever, with about 19 million voters, or 83 percent of the population, casting ballots for more than 11,000 officials, including the mayors of Taipei and five other special municipal districts.

In addition to mayors of the six special municipalities, three mayors of smaller cities will be elected, along with 13 county commissioners, about 900 councilors, 56 indigenous district representatives, nearly 2,300 local representatives and more than 7,700 borough wardens.

While filling so many positions is unlikely to change Taiwan’s political scene overnight, the results of this year’s elections will be carefully scrutinized at home and abroad.

For one thing, like the U.S. midterm elections, which will also be held in November, Taiwan’s “nine-in-one” elections will be seen as a prelude to the 2020 presidential and legislative elections.

Observers will be watching for signs of weakness in President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party, which has ruled the island’s politics since its blow-out wins in 2014 and 2016. They will also be looking for evidence of strength in the Kuomintang (KMT), which has sought to capitalize on areas of popular frustration with the government over the past two years.

These frustrations stem largely from a DPP decision to utilize its legislative majority after 2016 to address the hot-button issues of labor and pension reform, while committing to a controversial shift away from nuclear and fossil fuels toward green energy.

According to an independent poll released in August, the KMT’s strategy has shown some success, with the DPP’s approval ratings slipping and the KMT gaining ground.

KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih has set a target for the party to win half of the 22 counties, cities and special municipality districts in the upcoming elections.

Some see this as overly optimistic, but others point out that while many people are fed up with the DPP, they will not necessarily switch their support to the KMT, and therefore the party should expect to pick up only one or two seats lost in 2014.

The DPP is faced with the opposite problem. Having already acquired most of the island’s political real estate, the ruling party’s wish list is limited to winning New Taipei City, the only special municipal district it does not control. Analysts say that the DPP will be lucky to keep the 13 seats it has.

Also watching the November polls will be China, which has not regarded the DPP’s rise favorably and has enacted a wide range of policies designed to make things difficult for the party long identified with Taiwan independence.

So even modest gains by the pro-unification KMT are likely to please Beijing, perhaps enough to ease cross-strait pressure in hopes of building momentum for 2020.

By contrast, a DPP victory could lead China to double down on tactics such as stealing Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and conducting military drills around the island.

However, regardless of who is in power, China sees the DPP as a party that advocates independence, said Tai Li-an, a prominent Taiwan pollster.

“Unification is clearly Beijing’s ultimate goal,” Tai said, meaning that it will continue to support the KMT as the party most likely to advance that goal.

Also of interest to the Chinese leadership will be the fate of incumbent Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, whose China-friendly remarks earlier this year infuriated many in the DPP, which supported his successful candidacy in 2014.

A political independent, Ko is currently leading in the polls as many voters turn away from traditional parties.

A Ko win this time around without the backing of the DPP would suggest that voters identify with Ko’s views on China, which hold that the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are “one close family” and “a shared community of destiny.”

In addition to Ko, the mayor of Taoyuan and the former Kaohsiung mayor, both members of the DPP, have expressed similar conciliatory views of the mainland, and the continued electoral success in those two areas would send a positive message to Beijing.

One thing new in November will be a large number of referendums, which will be the first since the voting age on such initiatives was lowered from 20 to 18.

While some, like You Ying-lung, chairman of the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, celebrate what they see as the “deepening of Taiwan’s democracy,” others worry that an increase in direct polls that are legally binding will put governments in a bad spot with respect to complicated, often highly charged issues that are not adequately understood by the public being asked to vote on them.

“The large number of referendums has a lot to do with the lack of leadership from the government itself,” said Wang Yeh-li, a political science professor at National Taiwan University.

Ten referendum proposals are likely to be voted on, most of which concern domestic issues involving same-sex marriage and energy policy.

Two could have wider repercussions, however.

One is a proposal by an alliance of civic groups that Taiwan’s sports teams participate in future international events under the name “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei” as is currently done.

According to polls, a large majority of Taiwanese favor the proposal, which would include participation in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics under the preferred name.

Successful or not, the referendum is unlikely to change the policies of those who organize such events. In May, the International Olympic Committee stated it would stand by a 1981 agreement that Taiwanese athletes must compete as Chinese Taipei.

China has been annoyed by the proposal, not surprisingly, and recently pressured the East Asian Olympic Committee to revoke Taichung’s plan to host the 2019 East Asian Youth Games.

Another referendum initiated by the KMT seeks to maintain the ban on food products from five Japanese prefectures imposed because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Taiwan’s representative to Japan, Frank Hsieh, has criticized the initiative for undermining Taiwan-Japan relations. He has also said that if China eases its restrictions before Taiwan, Taiwan will be “embarrassed” because it will be the only place to retain such a comprehensive ban on Japanese food products from regions affected by the triple core meltdown in 2011.