TAIPEI - The ruling party in Taiwan received a message this weekend to show more achievements, including engagement with the island’s old nemesis China, as the opposition camp swept midterm elections.
The Democratic Progressive Party of President Tsai Ing-wen lost all but six mayoral and county magistrate seats Saturday, the first electoral test of its two years in the presidency. Fifteen seats went to the opposition Nationalist Party, which wants closer ties with China. The ruling party advocates for more distance.
China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, causing decades of friction between the two sides.
“I think if this year, in 2018, if the Nationalists smoothly win Taiwan’s city and county elections, that has some warning effects on the party in power, to let them know they’ve made mistakes in the past two years,” said Taipei voter Hong Wei-chi, 40, a marketing specialist.
Tsai stepped down Saturday night as party chief, though retaining the presidency, to take what she described as “full responsibility” for the election losses. Her premier also offered to resign, and the Central Election Commission head quit over the slow processing of ballots.
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Some voters believe Tsai hasn’t done enough to lift Taiwan’s economy despite data that points to improvement, said Raymond Wu, managing director of political risk consultancy e-telligence in Taipei. Unemployment has fallen to 3.76 percent during Tsai’s term and the economy is forecast to grow 2.68 percent this year.
Others are turned off by the ruling party because it stands by statements and actions that others find problematic, said Gratiana Jung, senior political researcher with the Yuanta-Polaris Research Institute think tank in Taipei. “The elections are not just local, they’re about governing style,” Jung said. “There are people who have criticized the government’s way of communicating as being too arrogant.”
Voters interviewed ahead of the vote said they were looking for local leaders who could build major new infrastructure, stimulate the economy or help particular groups such as youth.
The Democratic Progressive Party formed in 1986 to resist the then-authoritarian rule of the Nationalists, and it now embraces a list of popular liberal causes. Taiwan democratized in the 1980s. Tsai’s flagships achievements to date include pension reform, active support for renewable energy over nuclear power and stronger ties with the United States – a counterbalance to China.
Relations with China
Voters expressed themselves Saturday in part because they want Taiwan’s government to engage China, though not necessarily on Beijing’s terms, said Chao Chien-min, dean of the social sciences college at Chinese Cultural University in Taipei.
The two sides have not talked since 2016 because Tsai rejects China’s precondition that each side sees itself as part of one country – a process informally known as the 1992 Consensus. China, angered by lack of dialogue, has flown military planes near Taiwan, scaled back group tourism and hobbled Taiwan's foreign diplomacy.
The Nationalists accept Beijing’s condition for talks, and when former president Ma Ying-jeou ruled from 2008 to 2016 the two sides signed more than 20 deals on trade, transit and investment.
But voters threw the Nationalists out of local offices in 2014 and the presidency in 2016 as they feared Ma had gotten too cozy with Beijing.
“The public wants you to go accept negotiations with mainland China so previous relations, for example the 20 agreements, can keep being executed, but you need to find your own way of doing it,” Chao said. “It doesn’t have to be the 1992 Consensus. You can find your own golden key.”
Tsai must mind members of her party who advocate formal independence from China -- more than today’s widely supported de facto autonomy and a red line for Beijing. China has claimed Taiwan since the civil war of the 1940s, when the Nationalists lost and rebased in Taipei.
Nationalist Party Chairman Wu Den-yih said after the elections Saturday his camp would keep advocating for stronger relations with Beijing.
Setback for same-sex marriage
Tsai’s party also lost ground Saturday for one of its causes, the legalization of same-sex marriage. Voters passed a referendum asking that marriage be restricted to one man and one woman despite draft legislation last year by ruling party lawmakers suggesting recognition of same-sex ties.
LGBT couples hope Taiwan will be the first place in Asia to recognize same-sex marriage, letting them share child custody and insurance benefits.
Christian groups and advocates of the traditional Chinese family structure stumped for Saturday’s referendum along with a separate ballot measure that suggests using a “different process” to protect same-sex unions, a likely reference to keeping the civil code's marriage wording as is.Both measures passed.
Their campaign may have raised fear among voters, said Shiau Hong-chi, professor of gender studies and communications management at Shih-Hsin University in Taiwan.
“They usually do not illustrate any concrete examples about why they are against (same-sex marriage) and they usually make up some facts like once the laws pass, you cannot call your father papa, you cannot call your mother mama,” Shiau said.
But the referendum is advisory only, and in May 2017 the Constitutional Court ruling ordered parliament to make same-sex marriage legal within two years. Legislators, though mindful of public opinion, are obligated to carry out the legal order.