Chiang Ying-ying/AP
Supporters of Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party watch TV for the election results in Taipei, Taiwan, as preliminary vote count shows Taiwan's pro-China ruling party has suffered stiff defeats in municipal elections, Nov. 29, 2014.

Taiwan election surprise: Voters reject China-friendly ruling KMT party

Spurred by discontented youth, the island shifted from political 'blue' to 'green' as the Nationalists lost key mayor races in Taipei and Taichung. The election outcome may create more distance in Taiwan-China relations.

In a surprising political shift, Taiwanese voters this weekend turned from the China-friendly Nationalist ruling party to a more “Taiwan-first” or China-skeptical majority in nationwide local elections, a vote that could begin to harden relations between Taiwan and mainland China.

A political change across Taiwan from the “blue” ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party, to the “green” opposition party, was brought in significant degree by younger voters worried about mainland China’s claims on their self-ruled island. These young voters have voiced skepticism about the KMT party's ever-closer ties to Beijing and China’s huge economy.

The vocal youth opposition in Taiwan helped turn the KMT Nationalists out of the mayoralty of capital Taipei as well as Taichung, the island’s third largest city, and to win a majority in four smaller cities and three counties. The election sported more than 20,000 candidates for 11,000 offices, with the majority of “green” candidates coming from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which advocates more distance from China.

The KMT was victorious in six of Taiwan's biggest cities, compared to winning 15 in the 2010 local election.

Skepticism by Taiwan youth in Saturday’s vote is more pronounced than in past elections, analysts say, and will likely force President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT to harden his typically conciliatory or “friendly” stance toward Beijing ahead of presidential elections in 2016. Creating more distance may well frustrate China’s leaders who claim sovereignty over Taiwan, and who insist the two sides move toward unification. 

“According to our observation…age can probably capture the essence or explanation of this local election,” says Tsai Chia-hung, director of the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “The young people are against China at this moment,” he says. The KMT, he adds, “should be open-minded toward relations between Taiwan and China.”

Since President Ma was elected in 2008, the KMT Nationalists have staked their reputation on improving Taiwan’s export-reliant, half-trillion-dollar economy by signing landmark trade and investment deals with China. The government says those pacts have created 9,600 jobs, brought 2.8 million tourists from China last year, and raised two-way trade in 2013 to a record $124 billion.

But younger people are afraid Taiwan will grow over-dependent on China, allowing the Communist leadership to take over. It has sought unification since Taiwan split off after the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. Many also argue that the 21 deals with China since Mr. Ma took office in 2008 favor large exporters, not common people.

During campaign events, DPP or green candidates found that “young people packed train stations, high-speed rail stations and bus stops. They seemed to be almost everywhere,” says one analyst.

Kyle Kang, a graduate student aiming for a career in law, went home from Taipei Saturday to vote in Hsinchu city, in part because he finds the Nationalists too intent on helping big companies get ahead in China. He prefers they focus on “social welfare,” including help for the elderly and homeless people.

“Just as in March [during the student-led Sunflower movement], the younger people don’t like China and some want China policies changed,” he says. “Our youth should have decisive influence on the elections, and according to my observation, there was a trend of 20-somes going back home to vote.”

Pre-election polls had forecast just three losses for the Nationalists. But the opposition DPP picked up seven mayoral and county magistrate seats including for an overall majority.

Taiwanese youth first voiced discontent in March when hundreds of student-led protesters occupied parliament to stop ratification of a China trade deal that would liberalize 144 service trade sectors. Their ranks grew into the tens of thousands as sympathizers camped in the streets of Taipei to question the logic of making deals with a political rival.

“They have their character and they’re willing to take action,” says Billy Pan, campaign manager with Taipei mayor-elect Ko Wen-je, an independent. “We had 100,000 people at a campaign rally and it looked like half of Taipei’s youth came out.”

Younger people vented via social media during the local election campaigns, notes Wu Chung-li, political science research fellow with Taipei-based research institute Academia Sinica. They were upset by wages and housing prices, as well as a lack of tangible benefits from deals with China.

The average salary for university graduates is about $810 per month, while flats in central Taipei sell for $7,600 per square meter.

“Those people, their income, their social economic status are still highly limited. That’s why they’re complaining about lots of things,” Mr. Wu told an academic conference in Taipei Sunday.

Younger voters used social media further to recommend local candidates they liked, Democratic Progressive Party Secretary-General Joseph Wu says. The party is doing a study this week to find out exactly how influential they were.

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