Two Takeaways from Taiwan's 2018 Elections

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Monday December 3, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Taiwan's elections, and in particular, it's municipal elections are strongly local; and so while some pundits might wish to read the nine-in-one elections from the standpoint of cross-strait relations between Taiwan and China, the reality could not be further from the truth.

Late that night, another commentator and I went by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Taipei headquarters. We arrived just in time to hear Wu Den-yih's final address to the party's supporters.

Surprisingly, the mood of Wu's speech was somber and almost apologetic. This seemed strange because the KMT had just scored resounding victories in the mayoral elections in New Taipei City, Taichung, and in particular in deep-green Kaohsiung.

We had come from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters where President Tsai Ing-wen had just resigned as party chairperson.

One would have thought that the KMT mood would be more festive if not resoundingly jubilant.

However, after a little thought, the reasons became apparent. Despite those other victories, the KMT was at that moment losing Taipei, it's foremost stronghold.

Further, it was losing Taipei, not because of a split in their party ranks, nor because of any tremendous effort by the DPP. Instead they were losing Taipei to a man independent of both parties, the incumbent mayor Ko Wen-je.

This fact brought out the reality of how elections are local and how many Taiwan voters do respond to the current winds.

Certainly, some may still try to claim that Taiwan is once again embracing the pro-China KMT party in a great shift. That is not the case. Instead, as Taiwanese continue to discover their newfound democracy a swing vote is developing.

A simple yet telling question reveals this: "If Taiwanese were making an alleged great KMT shift, why didn't this happen in Taipei, the very heart of blue territory?"

Once that is answered, the rest easily follows.

The swing vote is most easily seen in Taipei where Mayor Ko Wen-je defeated KMT challenger Ting Shou-chung by a mere 3,254 votes.

In 2014, Ko had won Taipei with an impressive 853,983 votes; this time he only got 580,820. What happened?

An obvious quick answer would be that this time the DPP, which had supported Ko in 2014, fielded their own candidate, Pasuya Yao, and he took 244,641 votes from Ko's count. However, all things being equal, that would have still left Ko with 609,342 votes. Yet Ko was 28,522 votes short with 580,820.

There is more. In 2014, the so-so KMT candidate, Sean Lien, had received 609,932 votes; but in 2018, Ting received only 577,566. That was 32,366 votes less than Lien.

It was a beautiful day in Taipei in 2018; so poor voter turnout due to inclement weather could not be blamed.

Throughout Election Day, commentators spoke of long lines and a big turnout. They were wrong; the turnout was less. The long lines were there, but they were due to 10 referendums, which not only slowed the voting process, but the later vote count as well.

Ko's victory showed that a substantial independent swing vote is developing not only in Taipei but also throughout the nation. If the DPP had teamed up with Ko this year, he would have won handily, but even without the DPP, Ko still got an amazing 577,566 votes and was able to squeak by.

In analyzing independent swing voters, one finds that for them any previous party loyalty is often replaced by pragmatic, short-term thinking. They ask questions like: "What have you done lately?" "What progress has been made?" "Should I take my vote elsewhere?"

Ko had done enough to retain confidence and Ting and Yao offered little new.

The KMT victories in New Taipei City, Taichung and Kaohsiung had a different wrinkle. There the swing vote was not as evident by a three way split; it is seen more in how much each flipped the vote percentages from the previous election. In each, the KMT candidates also made efforts to distance themselves from the old KMT to attract this swing vote.

In New Taipei City, Hau You-yi ran more on the strength of his personality than party loyalty. In 2014, incumbent Eric Chu edged his DPP challenger, Yu Shyi-kun, 50.06 to 48.78 percent, but on Saturday, Hau received 57.15 percent. New Taipei City also added more than 100,000 votes.

In Taichung, where fewer people voted than in 2014, the KMT's Lu Shiow-yen flipped about 14.5 percent of the vote. In 2014, the DPP's Lin Chia-lung beat incumbent Jason Hu with 57.06 percent of the vote, but on Satuday, he only got 42.35 percent. He suffered from not having enough visible accomplishments.

In Kaohsiung, the KMT's Han Kuo-yu imitated Taipei's Ko by saying he was neither blue nor green but simply for Kaohsiung.

With extravagant promises equivalent to a "chicken in every pot," and bringing jobs and people back to Kaohsiung, he flipped about 24 percent compared with the 2014 victory of Chen Chu's the DPP.

However Han also here exposed a weakness in swing voting. Swing voters, especially new ones, may unfortunately lack a sense of history and be too easily swayed by promises and emotion.

After the election Han dredged up an old KMT canard, when he stated that he would establish a committee to explore the so-called "1992 consensus." He avoided that in the campaign. This set off a flurry of netizens googling "1992 consensus" to understand the person that they had just elected.

The second big takeaway from the elections is how the changes in the referendum law will have a major role in the future.This year's elections were the first time that the changes in December last year were introduced. These major changes lowered several passing bars on referendums.

They now need only 1.5 percent voter signatures (about 280,000 people) to get a topic on the ballot. To pass they need one-quarter of the eligible voters—4,939,267 votes—to support them along with the "yes" votes outnumbering the "no" votes. The voting age has also been lowered to 18 years.

This is a vast improvement and freed referendums from their previous birdcage. As a result, this election had 10 referendums, and seven of them were approved with about 55 percent participation.

On the downside, the many referendums did complicate the process and exposed procedure areas to be worked out. Voters were told to know the referendums beforehand, but many spent time reading them in the booths. This slowed everything down. As a result, the final vote tabulation finished at 2:30 am the next day.

However, on the plus side, the range of topics is clearly expanded and allows smaller groups to bring their issues to the fore.

Referendums now also add a one-issue element to the elections as they measure the mood of the nation. For this election day, there were five referendums on LGBT related matters; three on nuclear power and coal power and one each on the name change for the Olympics and a ban of food products from the Fukushima nuclear disaster area.

Thus as voters and special interest groups better understand both how to get referendums on the ballot and how to promote them, the Central Election Committee will have to up its game with more stringent rules.

Like it or not, the swing vote and one-issue referendums are here to stay and will be playing a larger role in Taiwan's future. On this, all parties and even voters must be aware of these changes and adapt with strategic planning.