Written by T.Y. Wang.
Taiwan concluded its 2016 combined presidential and legislative elections on January 16. In a three-way presidential race, Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who was rejected by voters four years ago, won a landslide victory to become Taiwan’s first female president. Her opponent, Eric Chu of the ruling Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or the KMT), lost the election by a substantial margin of 3 million or 25 percent of the 12 million cast votes. The third presidential candidate, James Soong of the People’s First Party (PFP), garnered about 12 percent of the vote. The rout of the KMT also extended to the legislative election as the DPP secured a majority in the 113-seat legislature. For the first time in the Taiwan’s democratic history, the DPP took control of both the executive and legislative branches. Immediately after the election, Chu resigned the chairmanship of the Nationalist Party, as supporters of the DPP celebrated their historic victory. While the DPP’s electoral success should be credited to Tsai’s efforts of revitalizing the party since its humiliating defeat in 2008, the KMT’s disastrous setback in 2016 was more of its own doing.
Reasons for the KMT’s Crushing Defeat
1. President Ma’s Low Approval Rating
When the outgoing President, Ma Ying-jeou of the ruling KMT, won the election for his first term in 2008 and re-election in 2012, he promised to bring peace and stability between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, as well as economic prosperity to the Taiwanese people. For the past eight years, the Ma administration adopted an engagement policy toward China and expanded economic relationships between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. While cross-Strait trade and tourism have boomed, the economic reality is far from Ma’s campaign promises. Even as big businesses make profits, wages are stagnant, economic inequality has worsened and home ownership is beyond the reach of most citizens. Although the unemployment rate has finally dropped below 4% since 2014, it is higher than those of neighbouring countries. In particular, youth unemployment has been hovering around 12-13 percent between 2010 and 2015. The harsh economic realities have left many to feel that it is mainly businesses, not ordinary people, which have benefited from the expanded economic exchanges with China. With a stagnant economy and plateaued wages, the younger generation faces a grim prospect.
Surveys by the Election Study Center (ESC) of the National Chengchi University in Taiwan reflect this sentiment. As Figure 1 shows, since September 2012, Taiwanese citizens have consistently rated Ma poorly for his ability in handling matters related to the economy, as less than 20 percent of the public expressed satisfaction with his performance. Based on the results of another survey conducted only one week before the election, 65 percent of the citizens felt that the economy was worse than it was a year ago and such a feeling was prevalent across all age groups.
The public dissatisfaction with Ma’s performance is not limited to the economy. Shortly after he won re-election in 2012, several policy reforms the Ma administration initiated encountered fierce public opposition. These included permitting a rise in both gas and electricity prices, imposing a capital gains tax on securities transactions, and lifting restrictions on importing U.S. beef products. All of these policy initiatives were perceived as hurting the public’s livelihood, contradicting his campaign promises. A series of food safety scandals between 2013-14 also led many to lose confidence in the government’s ability of providing a safe and prosperous living environment for its citizens. Moreover, in June 2012, a bribery scandal involving a major cabinet member, who had been repeatedly promoted by Ma, erupted. The scandal dealt a serious blow to Ma’s image as “Mr. Clean,” and the public further questioned his ability to appoint the right persons to key cabinet positions. The Ma administration was seen as incompetent, inefficient, and lacking intergovernmental coordination. As Figure 2 shows, Ma’s approval ratings suffered significantly, which dipped to as low as 11 percent between 2012 and 2015.
Empirical research has shown that presidential popularity is the “causal agent” of presidential effectiveness. A high approval rating not only indicates more power and a greater ability to govern, it also affects the electoral fate of a president’s party members. Ma’s low approval rating thus became the KMT’s liability in the 2016 elections.
2. China: the Silent Player
To its credit, the Beijing government restrained itself during the 2016 elections. Learning lessons from Taiwan’s 1996 and 2000 presidential elections, Chinese leaders realized that their sabre-rattling could only backfire. In both instances, candidates who they disapproved won the election as Beijing’s actions only hardened Taiwanese citizens’ resistance. Chinese leaders have since based their Taiwan policy mainly on economic exchanges, hoping that would lead to political integration. When Ma took office in 2008, he endorsed the “1992 Consensus,” a tacit understanding that the notion of “one China” should serve as the basis for cross-Strait interactions, without specifying precisely what it means. By accepting the notion of “one China”, along with his proclamation of the Three-noes policy, “no unification, no independence, and no use of military force,” Ma essentially reversed the pro-independence policies of his predecessor, former President Chen Shui-bian of the DPP. The Chinese government naturally has welcomed Ma’s policies. More than 20 agreements were reached between Taipei and Beijing during Ma’s presidency, including a landmark trade deal, in which the Chinese government made significant economic concessions. China is now Taiwan’s largest trading partner and the top destination of Taiwanese investments. Along with these economic activities, many business people shuttle routinely between the island and the Chinese mainland, while more than 3 million Chinese tourists visited Taiwan in 2014. Chinese leaders, nevertheless, continue to treat Taiwan as a renegade province and refuse to renounce the use of military force against Taiwan. They also continue to impose diplomatic isolation on Taipei in the international community.
In this context, deepening cross-Strait economic relations raise the concerns of Taiwanese citizens, fearing that intense economic interactions with the Chinese mainland may increase Taiwan’s vulnerability. Beijing’s economic concessions, despite being quite generous, are viewed as a sugarcoated scheme aiming to annex Taiwan. Surveys by the Election Study Center (ESC) at National Chengchi University in Taiwan (Figure 3) show that support for expanding economic activities with China gradually declined from 44 and 56 percent between 2004 and 2008, to 37 and 42 percent between 2011 and 2015. But opposition to expanding cross-Strait economic ties grew during the same period and reached as high as 43 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, as Figure 4 shows, public disapproval of Ma’s engagement approach towards China reached 60 percent in 2014, culminating in a massive protest known as the Sunflower Movement. The lasting effect of this anti-China sentiment has contributed to the KMT’s disastrous loss in the 2014 local election and extended to the 2016 elections.
3. A divided KMT
The KMT is notoriously susceptible to internal division. Indeed, it was a divided KMT that delivered the slim victory to the opposition DPP in the 2000 presidential election and thereby passed political power at the national level to another political party for the first time in the country’s democratic history. The KMT during Ma’s presidency was no exception. In September of 2013, Ma accused parliament speaker Wang Jin-pyng of obstruction of justice and tried to expel Wang from the party. Although Ma’s attempt was not successful, it was perceived as a power struggle between factions, and severe strife within the party has since surfaced. Meanwhile, only four months before the 2016 presidential election, the KMT decided to drop the party’s first female presidential nominee, Hung Hsiu-chu, following a series of poor ratings in opinion polls. While Hung was officially nominated through a party-sanctioned procedure, she was replaced by the party’s chairman, Eric Chu. The episode, again, left many KMT core supporters feeling betrayed.
The demoralization effect of this series of events was clearly shown in the aforementioned ESC Survey conducted one week before the elections. Out of 2000 respondents, close to 2 percent of the KMT-led pan-Blue alliance supporters indicated that they would not vote or cast void votes if they had shown up at the polls at all. This translates into a loss of more than 300 thousand votes lost to the KMT. More importantly, the PFP, which shares the same electoral base with the KMT, received a substantial boost to 12.8 percent of presidential votes from just 2.76 percent four years ago. It is plausible to speculate that many pan-Blue alliance supporters switched their backing to the PFP.
In summary, the crushing defeat of the KMT in the 2016 combined presidential and legislative elections was mainly due to Ma’s poor performance, the party’s China-friendly policy and internal strife.
Both the KMT and the DPP are facing serious challenges in the coming period. For the KMT, the humiliating electoral defeat suggests the party needs to do some serious soul-searching. Should it adjust its engagement policy with China? How should it connect to the younger generation and energize its base? It will need a strong leader who can help the party to identify a direction and navigate through this troubling time.
As the ruling party of Taiwan, the DPP will have to deal with two closely related issues: the economy and cross-Strait relations. As previously indicated, Taiwan’s economy has suffered slow growth, wages are stagnant and economic inequality worsens. The political gridlock during Ma’s tenure has created an unfriendly investment environment, despite Taiwan’s highly skilled workforce and strategic location in East Asia. The Tsai administration will need to take serious measures to revitalize investors’ confidence. Complicating the matter is the Taiwanese economy’s dependence on the Chinese market. As a trade-dependent economy, about 25% of Taiwan’s annual exports go to China. A stable cross-Strait relationship with Beijing will be important not only for its own right but also for Taiwan’s economy.
Tsai has made it clear that she will not endorse the “1992 consensus.” Beijing leaders have been alarmed by Tsai’s stance because the core of the Consensus is an acknowledgement of the notion of “one China.” In their view, a rejection of the “1992 Consensus” is a step toward Taiwan’s independence. They therefore warned that cross-Strait relationship would suffer catastrophic consequences should the Consensus be rejected. In her post-election speech, Tsai pledged that her administration “will build a consistent, predictable, and sustainable cross-strait relationship… [that is based on] the Republic of China’s constitutional order, the results of cross-strait negotiations, interactions and exchanges, and democratic principles and the will of the Taiwanese people.” Unlike former President Chen, who adopted a series of pro-independence policies that angered Beijing and irked Washington, Tsai is cautious and her statements are moderate and reassuring. The essence of her message is the maintenance of status quo. The challenge is finding a proper formula, whatever it is, that would meet Beijing’s perceived needs and satisfy her domestic constituencies. Given that the DPP controls both the executive and the legislative branches of the government, she will need to resist the domestic pressure from her fundamentalist supporters who are likely to take advantage of the newly found political power to pursue their more provocative objectives. Otherwise, cross-Strait relationships during Tsai’s tenure as Taiwan’s president could get very messy.
T.Y. Wang is professor of political science at Illinois State University. He is the co-editor of Journal of Asian and African Studies. He was the Coordinator of the Conference Group of Taiwan Studies (CGOTS) of the American Political Science Association.
 For a systematic analysis of Ma’s popularity, see T.Y. Wang and Su-feng Cheng. “Presidential Approval in Taiwan: An Analysis of Survey Data in the Ma Ying-jeou Presidency.” Electoral Studies, v.40 (2015): 34-44.
 The 2015 unemployment rates for Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea were 2.0%, 3.3%, 3.6%, and 3.5%, respectively. <http://www.stat.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=38919&ctNode=519&mp=4>. Accessed Jan. 20, 2015.
 Su-feng Cheng. 2016. “Generational Differences of Taiwan Citizens’ Identity and the Political Implications.” Election Study Center, National Chengchi University.