Local elections in a small Asian democracy would normally deserve little attention. But Taiwan's municipal polls have revived the fortunes of a badly demoralized opposition that Beijing loathes and Washington views with deep skepticism.
In choosing mayors for the island's five metropolitan areas, Taiwanese voters representing 60 percent of the population have confirmed the status quo. The mayorships of three large cities, including Taipei, remain in the hands of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) while the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) holds on to the two largest cities in the south, their traditional stronghold.
But the underlying trends signal a possible return to center stage for the anti-unification camp that Beijing has vowed to defeat at any cost.
As a result, the KMT celebrations have been muted. President Ma Ying-jeou had expected that his government's dramatic opening to China of the past two years would be enough to revive a weak economy and keep voters happy. Yet his public approval ratings remain well below 50 percent, and voters seem to be saying that they are willing to give his party a little more time, but will keep their options open for the legislative and presidential elections that are barely one year away.
The narrowness of the KMT's victory has been sobering.
The party almost lost the city of Taichung in central Taiwan, a race that should have been a slam dunk. Most unsettling is the rising voter support for the anti-unification “greens” that caught many observers by surprise.
In islandwide tallies, the DPP won nearly 50 percent of the total vote, compared with less than 45 percent for the KMT, an advantage of more than 400,000 votes. This was a large erosion of support for President Ma and his party, which won the 2008 presidential race by more than 2.2 million votes. Turnout of 72 percent was unusually high for local elections, reinforcing the menacing math for the China-friendly KMT. The opposition also pulled even with the KMT in seats on local city councils across the island, showing strong support at the grassroots level that has traditionally been a heavy advantage for the ruling party.
One conclusion from all this is that Taiwan's two-party system is working better than many analysts had believed. It is now obvious, too, that Ma is vulnerable in 2012, when he is expected to stand for a second term and could initiate political talks with Beijing.
“President Ma may have passed his mid-term exam,” commented Antonio Chiang, columnist for the independent Apple Daily, Taiwan's largest newspaper. “But the most important outcome of this election is the comeback of the DPP.”
That comeback is striking not only because of the shellacking the party received in the legislative and presidential polls in 2008. The DPP also had been severely demoralized by the prosecution and conviction of former President Chen Shui-bian and his family members on corruption charges. While those criminal cases are still working their way through the court system, the party that Mr. Chen once led is quickly moving out of the shadow cast by his public humiliation and incarceration.
DPP members give much of the credit to Tsai Ying-wen, a British-educated law professor, trade negotiator, and former vice-premier who took over party leadership in May 2008. With her makeover of the DPP's former image as a bastion of fundamentalists who stridently advocate Taiwan's independence of China, Ms. Tsai is a different kind of opposition leader.
During her own election campaign, which she lost against one of the KMT's rising stars by 5 percent, there was almost no mention of the DPP's core messages in the past. These include assertions of a Taiwanese national identity and sovereignty separate from China, and protesting Beijing's intentions to unify the island by force, if necessary.
Instead, Su Cheng-chang and Tsai, the DPP candidates for Taipei and New Taipei City, respectively, waged low-intensity election appeals with pop music concerts and soft-image messaging, along with a detailed social and economic agenda. Both Tsai and Mr. Su are leading contenders for their party's presidential nomination next year, and their cooler approach to challenging the KMT was a test-run for the 2012 elections.
“They put more emphasis on the the social divide between rich vs. poor and not on the divide across the Taiwan Strait,” said Tien Hung-mao, president of the Institute of National Policy Research. Mr. Tien noted that both opposition candidates have moderate and realistic views of relations across the Taiwan Strait.
In steering the DPP onto what she called the “correct path” and away from the emotion-laden rhetoric about independence and sovereignty, Tsai said that the biggest test is yet to come. Local elections made it easier to avoid talking about China, but that will not be possible in the national campaigns to begin next year. “How we face a rising China will be the important task of our party in the coming years,” she said.
The most influential factions in the DPP reportedly all support a flexible policy toward China, but building internal consensus will take more time. Tsai said it will be next spring before the DPP's new China policy can be unveiled. Meanwhile, the party's makeover remains incomplete.
“Until the DPP has a new China policy, it won't totally have a new face,” said Su Tzen-ping, chairman of newtalk.tw, an independent online news website.