Written by J. Michael Cole.

The dust from the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) routing in the Nov. 29 local elections had yet to settle when analysts within the green camp started arguing that the results constituted a referendum on President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) “pro-China” polices. Some held to this belief religiously, and in an unusual instance of disagreement, even turned on the victorious Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) envoy to the U.S. for daring to argue while on a visit to Washington, D.C. that a “China” referendum it wasn’t.

So who’s right, and what does the outcome of the “nine-in-one” elections tell us about Taiwanese attitudes? Did the Taiwanese public say “no” to China, or did other factors weigh more heavily on their voting decisions?

My assessment is that Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), the DPP’s envoy to Washington who, as if he wasn’t busy enough already, doubles as party secretary general, was absolutely right in his briefing to U.S. officials that the elections were not a referendum on the KMT’s cross-Strait policy, and partly right when he argued that “cross-Strait relations were not debated as part of this election.”

The belief that the elections — any election in Taiwan — had to be about China stems from the longstanding assumption that cross-Strait relations are the defining characteristic of politics in Taiwan. Not only is this false, it defines Taiwanese as unidimensional, incapable of making rational choices based on considerations that normally characterize democratic elections elsewhere. In other words, whether it is oppositional or favorable, Taiwanese are supposedly defined by their relationship with China. That line of argument is usually made by people who also believe that Taiwanese are, or can easily be, “brainwashed.”

In reality, Taiwanese identity has normalized enough that people can make decisions about their future that are not, in some fundamental way, related to China. They are rational actors who are fully capable of making choices based on the various pieces of information they have at their disposal.

So, what was Nov. 29 all about? And why did Taiwanese voters punish the KMT so decisively? The principal reason was poor governance. After six years in control of the executive, the KMT had become complacent, distant, unaccountable, cronyistic, and in many ways softly authoritarian. Its abuses were legion, and civil society — culminating in the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March 2014 — countered with a series of campaigns aimed at exposing the government, both at the local and central level, when it erred. Those who fail to appreciate the impact of this phenomenon on the nine-in-one elections, or who believe that activism began with the Sunflower Movement, must have adopted an ahistorical view of Taiwanese politics.

Taiwan’s limited geographical size may very well have been a factor ensuring that the majority of the population, regardless of where they live, had at least some knowledge of what was going on elsewhere in Taiwan, something that cannot be said of continental-sized democracies like Canada and the U.S., for example, where the focus of the media tends to be constrained by the tyranny of distance. (It is difficult to imagine residents of, say, Vancouver, British Columbia, paying attention to, let alone taking action over, forced evictions in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 4,429 km to the east, a distance that is equal to eleven times the length of Taiwan. It is less difficult to conceive of residents of Taipei being aware of and engaging in activism over the state-sanctioned, albeit illegal, land grabs in Dapu, Miaoli County.)

In recent years, thanks to civic groups and social movements local developments have become part of the national narrative in Taiwan. So when a KMT councilor or mayor acts like a thug abetted by KMT officials in Taipei (Miaoli comes to mind), people know and remember. When the nexus of big money and local KMT officials threatened the rights of local residents and again the central government turned a blind eye or worse, encouraged local officials, it, too, became part of a narrative that was becoming increasingly unfavorable to the KMT.

By Nov. 29, it had become clear that most KMT officials could not be trusted. This had nothing to do with China, except for the fact that those discredited officials often had dealings with individuals, firms, and officials on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. (One should not confuse lack of trustworthiness with the China factor; the former isn’t necessarily caused by the latter, through it can make deals with it far more dangerous. Put differently: An honest official can be trusted to conduct business with China in a manner that doesn’t undermine the rights of his or her constituents; conversely, you can’t handle China if you’re crooked to start with.)

Other factors contributed to the KMT debacle, such as the negative campaigning by the Sean Lien (連勝文) camp in Taipei, which may have tainted other KMT campaigns, and a series of scandals in months prior — conflicts of interest, corruption, tainted food, KMT legislator and Lien aide Alex Tsai’s (蔡正元) reprehensible behavior, the Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) affair, deaths in the military, to name a few — that were all mishandled by an administration that was as unaccountable as it was keen to blame others for the impasse.

Taiwanese punished the KMT for its transgressions by giving clear victories to candidates from the DPP or those, like Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) in Taipei, who were running as independents. Given the wide margins by which the DPP won in otherwise “blue” constituencies, people who traditionally (and sometimes automatically) voted “blue” either broke the mold or simply chose not to vote (the low turnout by Taiwanese standards, 67.59 percent, tells us that last-minute efforts by the KMT to bring out the vote, especially in places like Taipei and Taichung, were met with indifference).

To argue, as Wu did, that “cross-Strait relations were not debated as part of this election” is wrong. China did factor into the calculations, but it was a secondary consideration. It only figured when its designs upon Taiwan exacerbated local deficiencies, or when it was feared that electing dishonest local officials would open the door to undue Chinese influence. What was first and foremost on voters’ minds on Nov. 29 was the need to elect officials who can govern with accountability and who are capable of striking a proper balance between development, people’s rights, the environment — and yes, Chinese capital.

The outcome of the Nov. 29 elections bespeaks maturity on the part of Taiwanese voters who, to their credit, have succeeded in transcending the unidimensional “China question.” Theirs were rational decisions made by calculating the available data on multiple variables. This isn’t necessarily good news for the KMT (or the DPP for that matter), as it means that getting or “selling” China “right” is no longer sufficient, or perhaps even relevant, to ensure that one will get elected. After years of uneven — and in many cases downright poor — governance, the Taiwanese public has made it clear it now expects accountability, transparency, and honesty on the part of its elected officials, and that the Chinese-style development-at-all-cost model no longer resonates with Taiwan’s definition of modernity.

It was on the battleground of such modernity that the Nov. 29 elections were fought, not over President Ma’s flirtations with Beijing.

J. Michael Cole is a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei, and editor in chief of http://www.thinking-taiwan.com.