There is more to Taiwan elections than cross-strait relations. Taiwanese voters, like people in any other democracy, go to the ballot box to register their approval or disapproval of domestic policies and leadership. The quick comeback of the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), after the 2014 “green wave,” and the drubbing of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) does not necessarily mean Taiwanese voters are warming to China.

Last month’s results were unquestionably a disaster for the DPP. The opposition KMT reversed their fortunes by taking 15 of the 22 city and county seats. While the DPP’s share of local authorities fell from thirteen to just six. President Tsai Ing-Wen’s party also suffered a hugely symbolic defeat in Kaohsiung, which has traditionally been a stronghold for the DPP and is historic as a place of pro-democracy (anti-KMT) resistance during the islands authoritarian era.

Tsai Ing-wen
Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, resigns as chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party after the party’s electoral defeat in November 2018.

The results of Taiwan’s numerous referendums also saw a victory for conservative movements on the island. Multiple questions, proposed by Taiwan’s increasingly organised anti-LGBT lobby, were voted for by large margins. Meanwhile, the voting down of one motion calling on Taiwanese athletes to participate in international sporting events under the name ‘Taiwan,” rather than “Chinese, Taipei,” was a blow to pro-independence forces.

For international audiences Taiwanese politics is viewed through the prism of two competing camps: the pro-China blue camp and the pro-independence green camp, led respectively by the two main parties the KMT and the DPP.

Depending on what side wins, conclusions about Taiwanese attitudes towards China are drawn and predictions about the future of cross-strait relations made.

This undoubtedly makes sense for presidential elections. The victories of the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian in 2000 and the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou in 2008 set the tone for cross-strait dialogue (or lack thereof) during their periods in office.

red house taiwan taiwanese republic of china national day
Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

However, in local elections, Taiwan’s position vis- à-vis China is much less important. While results may have an impact on cross-strait relations, for example, China may reward new KMT mayors by promoting tourism and business links with their cities, it should not be assumed that cross-strait issues drove voters to the polls.

Traditional bread and butter issues, from welfare to the economy, are at the forefront of most political campaigns. Taiwan is no exception.

It is easy to fall into this trap given that traditional left-right politics is less prominent in Taiwan. For example, the DPP-KMT division over economics or public services is not as stark as the divide between Labour and the Conservatives in the United Kingdom. Therefore, identity and attitudes to China become the prism by which the world looks on at the island.

No doubt this has been reinforced, this time around, by various PRC state-run media outlets using the election results to criticise the DPP’s cross-strait policy, and more specifically President Tsai’s dismissal of the 1992 Consensus, which affirms that both sides on the strait belief that there is only one China. According to China Daily:

“The election shows that the Tsai administration has betrayed Taiwan’s interests and become a troublemaker whose actions have drifted farther away from the practical needs of the Taiwan people and the historical truth of the consensus there is only one China.”

Taiwan presidential office
Office of the President, Taiwan. Photo: Taiwan presidential office.

Were Taiwanese voters really using the local elections to make a point about the 1992 Consensus? Unlikely, given the lack of consensus among the Taiwanese public on what the declaration actually stands for and the fact that only a small minority on the island desire Beijing’s hope for future unification.

To understand the results of Taiwan’s local elections one needs to look at the national and local pictures more closely. Like any other country, Taiwan has its fair share of domestic problems which voters care about – the economy, welfare and the environment to name a few. Also, like any other democracy, similar electoral conventions apply – incumbents get a kicking.

Those dissatisfied with the status-quo could vote for a minor party or stay at home (which no doubt some did) but in a two-party system, which at the moment Taiwan essentially is, that means voting for the opposition. This appears to be what many in Taiwan have done.

Taiwan election 2018 november
Results of the Taiwan municipal elections in November 2018. Blue represents KMT-held areas; green represents DPP. Photo: Wikicommons.

Efforts by President Tsai, and the DDP controlled legislature, to reform the country’s pension system and labour laws have aggravated large parts of the electorate. Meanwhile, the large number of referendums held alongside the local elections put national issues into the spotlight – thus motivating turnout from sections of the population who would not have normally been so eager to go to the polls.

Similarly, the DPP paid the price for being the incumbents locally – especially in the southern cities which they have held for many years.

As well as dealing with difficult issues nationally the DPP was also charged with failing to act locally. Air quality (not the 1992 Consensus) was the key issue in Taichung city, a bellwether of Taiwanese politics, where the KMT’s Lu Shiow-yen, who campaigned heavily on local environmental concerns, won a decisive victory over the DPP incumbent.

Taichung Fire Power Plant
Taichung Power Plant. Photo: Wikicommons.

Local economic factors played there part also. In Kaohsiung, which the DPP has held since 1998, the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu tapped into residents’ concerns about the area slipping behind. He took the unconventional approach of talking down the area he hoped to represent. Yet this unorthodox, or Trumpian populist style, saw him through. As too did his promise to make the city rich again. His novel approach also stood in stark contrast to the DPP’s Chen Chi-mai’s less charismatic and more bureaucratic style.

Another interesting thing to note also about the Kaohsiung race, which would give credence to the argument that the outcome was more about personality than pleasing China, is the result of the identity orientated referendum on the name used for international sporting events. As noted by Daniel Kao, despite many areas in Kaohsiung flipping blue in the mayoral contest these same areas voted for the name “Taiwan” in this referendum (unlike many other parts of Taiwan). It seems that a pro-independence streak still exists in the former DPP-stronghold despite Han’s election victory.

Han Kuo-yu
KMT’s Han Kuo-yu. Photo: Wikicommons.

This is not to say cross-strait relations has no impact on Taiwanese election results. However, it is often overplayed by inattentive external observers or those with an agenda to push. In the coming months and years, there will be more detailed investigations and analysis of the results. What is more, it will not be until after future elections, namely the fight for the presidency in 2020, that we can begin to understand the significance of the 2018 local elections. If the DPP hold on this year’s blue surge will be seen as an aberration, if not then it will be seen as the forerunner to a KMT presidential victory.

While time will tell it is worth noting that the general trend in Taiwan has been towards a population who regard themselves as Taiwanese not Chinese. The backlash against President Ma’s Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, which was seen as tying Taiwan too closely with China, is testament to that. One set of results, for mayors and councillors, should not blind us to long-term trends or the island’s recent political history.

Gray is a writer based in Taipei who regularly comments on Taiwanese, Chinese and Hong Kong politics. Previously he worked in human rights advocacy, and for many years was an activist for the UK Labour Party. Follow him on Twitter.