Written by Shelley Rigger.
Barack Obama and Ma Ying-jeou were both elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. Today, both face intractable problems and waning popularity – and two more years in office. They must also manage the results of nation-wide elections held in November 2014, halfway through their second terms. It is not surprising that many observers are quick to analogize the two events. In fact, while the timing and scale of the elections are similar, there are big differences and it is important not to overstate the comparison. In particular, the November 29 elections in Taiwan are not simply a referendum on Ma or the KMT; nor are they necessarily an accurate predictor of what will happen in national elections in 2016.
What is a midterm election? Because American presidents serve for four years, while members of the House of Representatives serve for two and senators serve staggered six year terms, every president faces a “midterm election” halfway through each term. Those midterm elections are extremely important for U.S. national politics, and critical for the president. Most importantly, the midterms determine the composition of the national legislature. The president’s party can gain or lose control of one or both legislative chambers, radically altering the environment within which (s)he will govern for the next two years. A midterm election also tends to be interpreted as a referendum on the president’s record and performance, which has implications for his or her mandate to govern. Midterms are also frequently viewed as a forecast for the presidential election that will follow two years on.
It’s tempting to view Taiwan’s 9-in-1 elections as having similar implications for President Ma as the November 3 midterms had for President Obama. But I would caution against such a comparison. After all, none of the officials who will be elected on November 29 will assume a national office, so the composition of the government will not change. Ma will continue to work with the same legislators after December 1 that he has been working with since 2012.
Where the comparison is more interesting is in the implication that midterm elections are a referendum on the president’s performance. In a way, perception is reality in this situation: If people see the election as a referendum, if politicians and citizens interpret the results as an indicator of Ma’s popularity and mandate, his ability to act in the remaining two years of his presidency will be affected. If the KMT does poorly – if it loses seats or wins fewer overall votes than the DPP – the referendum interpretation will make it hard for Ma to persuade the legislature or others in his party to follow his lead on policy matters. If the KMT does better than expected, Ma may be able to use the “referendum” logic to wrestle back the initiative from his foes.
It may be too late to persuade observers – especially in the PRC – to rein in this referendum logic, but I for one am skeptical that voters will use the 9-in-1 elections primarily to express their feelings about Ma, the KMT, the DPP, or national issues generally. These elections are local elections, and they will turn, above all, on local issues and personalities. The DPP may pick up a few votes from disgruntled citizens or activist youths, but the referendum effect will be limited for several reasons
First, there aren’t very many races that have both national implications and partisan colouration. The most important contests are for the heads of the six major municipalities. Contestants for these offices include some potential presidential candidates, and one of the races – in Taichung – combines hot competition with a very partisan tone. But most of the other races are either not very competitive or – in the case of Taipei – not straightforwardly-partisan.
Second, the Taipei City mayoral race is not exactly a Blue-Green showdown. Taipei City is especially hard to understand as a partisan “referendum,” because the DPP does not have a candidate in the race. It stepped aside to allow an independent, Ko Wen-je, to compete against the KMT’s Sean Lien (Lieng Sheng-wen). The DPP would like to think that votes for Ko are votes for the DPP, but there’s a good chance that Ko will do better than a DPP candidate would have done. Many “Light Blue” voters – those who normally vote for the KMT but are not strong partisans – may find it easier to vote for Ko than for a candidate nominated by the DPP. Depending upon which candidates the major parties nominate in the presidential race, those voters might well return to the KMT fold. A Ko victory in 2014 doesn’t mean the DPP will win the city in 2016.
Third, most races are local, and local factors will drive the outcomes. Of the 11,000-plus officials to be elected on November 29, only a handful have any influence in national politics. There are a few would-be presidential and legislative candidates on the ballot, but the vast majority of those elected will never rise above the ranks of local officialdom. They will be responsible for day-to-day management of local governments – maintaining roads, staffing local government offices, collecting refuse, providing basic services. They have nothing to do with big issues such as cross-Strait relations and national economic policy, and most voters know this. Most voters also know the candidates – they know which ones have a record for honesty and competence, which ones come from families known for good political performance, which ones have a record of taking care of “our folks.” Those factors will be determinative in the vast majority of cases. Even in Taichung, which is one of the most exciting head-to-head Blue-Green contests, local issues are an important driver.
Fourth, local council elections force voters to look at candidates, not just parties. One reason these elections are so likely to turn on local issues is electoral procedures. Most of the 11,000 offices up for grabs on Saturday are on local councils, and those elections work like the old SNTV legislative races: there are multiple seats but each voter chooses only one candidate. In order to capture a majority of council seats, a party needs to nominate multiple candidates. The candidates must then evenly divide the votes available to their party among themselves in order to advance as many as possible onto the council. This form of voting rewards personalistic campaign tactics and punishes issue-based appeals. Ironically, in a year when many Taiwanese are disillusioned about national politics, voter turnout is likely to be low, which makes this kind of retail politics all the more important in determining the outcome.
Finally, the KMT is stronger locally than nationally. The KMT has deep roots and a strong capacity to mobilize votes for grassroots offices. Those assets help the party in national elections, but they are most powerful in local elections. The KMT could do well on November 29 – especially in the municipal, city, and county councils and grassroots elections – and still be in big trouble for 2016.
In sum, the drivers for this election are mainly local. There is some room for party-driven, “send-a-message” voting, but the offices that are up for grabs in this election don’t lend themselves to plebiscitary balloting. President Ma isn’t on the ballot, which is probably a good thing for his party, which has thousands of candidates who enjoy far greater popularity in their small communities than he does in the nation as a whole. For these reasons, teasing national implications out of these grassroots elections will not be easy.
Shelley Rigger is Brown Professor and Chair in Political Science at Davidson College. She is the author of Why Taiwan Matters and From Opposition to Power: Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party and is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute.