Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was battered in nationwide local elections held last weekend. In the wake of the drubbing, President Tsai Ing-wen announced that she would step down as party chair. The outcome heralds a difficult two more years for Tsai as she completes her term as president, and likely anticipates a renewed campaign by the government in Beijing to pressure Taipei to build closer ties with the mainland.
Tsai became Taiwan’s first female president in 2016, riding a landslide for the DPP: The party then won 56 percent of the vote, a tally that fell to 39 percent in this ballot. Support for its rival, the Kuomintang (KMT), rose from 31 percent in 2016 to 49 percent last weekend. Voters rejected DPP candidates across the island, with the number of DPP-controlled cities and counties falling from 18 to six. The KMT won 15 of the contests, with an independent holding on to the mayor’s job in the capital city of Taipei to claim a second term. In an especially painful blow, the KMT candidate prevailed in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, where the DPP has ruled for 20 years. More embarrassing still, the KMT candidate was a political outsider who ran a populist campaign and was thought to have little chance of success.
The outcome was a referendum on the Tsai administration. A DPP stalwart, she pledged to put more distance between Taiwan and China, and to revitalize an economy that had slowed and remained sluggish. She promised labor reform and pension cuts — both of which were unpopular — in the hope of spurring wage increases that never occurred.
Tsai acknowledged the “vote of no confidence,” and resigned her position as DPP chair. “Today, democracy taught us a lesson,” she said Saturday night after the results were in. She promised, however, to retain her administration’s guiding principles, adding that “The DPP will hold on to freedom and democracy. We will hold on protecting the country’s sovereignty, as it is DPP’s mission that cannot let go.”
That will infuriate Beijing, which is determined to bring Tsai and the DPP to heel. China considers the island a renegade province and has made reunification a national priority. Any reference to Taiwan as “a country” or mention of its “sovereignty” triggers alarms in China. Since Tsai took office — replacing a KMT president who sought to build ties with the mainland — Beijing has cut trade with key DPP constituencies, slowed tourism from China, conducted military drills near the island and convinced several countries that had recognized Taiwanese sovereignty to switch their diplomatic ties to China.
A Chinese spokesperson applauded the election results, saying that China “will continue to firmly oppose separatist elements advocating ‘Taiwan independence’ and their activities and unite the people of Taiwan to take a path of peaceful development in cross-strait relations.” That will mean renewed efforts to court voters in the new KMT-led municipalities to demonstrate that support for that party — and its pro-China agenda — pays dividends. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the government body that deals with cross-strait relations, warned Beijing against overplaying its hand, saying that it should respect Taiwan’s internal affairs and democracy and not “interpret the expectations of Taiwan’s people toward relations across the Taiwan Strait.” It added that deliberately political Chinese approaches to local governments and people would not help “positive interactions” with Taiwan.
Taiwanese voters also voted on several referenda, and those results provided yet more slaps in the face to the Tsai administration. A measure that would legalize same-sex marriage, which Tsai once supported, was soundly defeated. Another called for Taiwanese athletes to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei,” as they have for years. The thinly veiled pro-independence measure, which was purely symbolic as the International Olympic Committee would never have agreed, was also defeated. A KMT-supported measure that called for the continued use of nuclear power plants — which Tsai opposes — passed.
The results matter to Japan. Yet another referendum called on voters to reconsider the ban on imports of good and agricultural products from areas affected by the nuclear accident in Fukushima. More than three-quarters of voters said that it should be maintained.
More important though is the Taiwanese public’s rejection of Tsai’s agenda. Tokyo views Taipei as an important partner in efforts to constrain China, both from a security and diplomatic perspective. The rebuke that Tsai and the DPP received last weekend shows that approach’s limits. There is no appetite in Taiwan for a real challenge to China and Japan must adjust its strategic calculations accordingly. Tsai, too, will be adjusting to new constraints on her policy and thinking, all while Beijing will do its utmost to limit her choices still further.