Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou bowed for 10 seconds Wednesday as he confirmed his resignation as chairman of the ruling Kuomintang, taking responsibility for the party’s worst drubbing since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island after defeat in the Chinese civil war. On Saturday, voters thoroughly rejected the KMT, as the organization is known, in elections for 11,130 local posts across the island.
Voters turned down KMT candidates in seats that had been safely “blue” for decades. It was not so much that the electorate had gone “green”—the color adopted by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and its allies—as much as they had rejected Ma, who was nearing the end of his second and last term.
As the president said while announcing his resignation, “The results of the election tell us our reforms were not made fast enough and have yet to meet the expectations of the people, which is why the KMT failed to win the support of most voters.”
Ma is only half right. True, his government had been seen as corrupt and, worse, incompetent, and he had not met overly ambitious campaign promises in his two successful runs for the presidency.
Yet Ma apparently has not come to terms with the fundamental reason for his party’s failure in Saturday’s election, in which 67.6 percent of the eligible voters participated. His China policies, after six years in office, have become extremely unpopular.
During his tenure, 21 trade, transit, and investment pacts have been put in place. They have resulted in economic integration with the “mainland,” as Ma’s allies call it, or “China,” the term used by those who do not see Taiwan as Chinese. Ma has worked for a political accommodation with Beijing, but an overwhelming majority of people on the island want no part of the People’s Republic even in the best of times, and now there is a general perception that China ties have worked to Taiwan’s disadvantage.
Despite the perception, Ma this year tried to ram the ratification of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement through the Legislative Yuan. This 22nd China pact stalled, however, when students and others occupied the national legislature for 24 days in the spring. The Sunflower Movement since then has taken on a life of its own, crystalizing thinking in society.
And it did not help the Kuomintang when Beijing in recent months overreached in Hong Kong as it tried to write the rules for the 2017 election of the territory’s chief executive, the top political official there. Moreover, Chinese leader Xi Jinping did Ma no favors when he said in September that the “one country, two systems” formula put in place for that city should be applied to Taiwan, thereby painting a future that many in Taiwan viewed as dark.
Ma, to his credit, criticized Beijing for its Hong Kong policies and said one country, two systems had no applicability to his island republic, but by then the Taiwan leader had become tone deaf—or perhaps desperate. About 10 days before his country’s election, when it became clear that his party was heading for defeat across the board, he played the China card, trying to turn the contest into a referendum on his cross-strait policies.
Although “all politics are local” applies to Taiwan—the nine levels of public office that were up for grabs on Saturday had almost nothing to do with China policy—the injection of an unpopular issue probably cost the ruling party even more support. As it turned out, the Kuomintang ended up with only 40.7 percent of the vote.
The KMT is now in disarray. Ma’s successor as party chairman will not be picked until January at the earliest, and many additional posts will have to be filled as others also took the resignation route in the last few days. Many predict the KMT will be wracked by fierce power struggles as party stalwarts scramble to fill the newly vacant slots.
The party’s to-do list is daunting, as it will have to reconstitute itself, come up with candidates for the 2016 election, and most difficult of all, find a message that resonates. As a practical matter, the KMT cannot develop an attractive message unless its China policies start producing more growth for Taiwan and the benefits of that growth are spread more evenly throughout society.
Meanwhile, the normally fractured opposition looks unusually united behind a reenergized Tsai Ing-wen, who led the Democratic Progressive Party to defeat in the 2012 presidential contest. Her task list has only one major item: don’t fall while riding the anti-blue tidal wave.
Many say she also has to convince Washington that a DPP victory will not upset the status quo, but that may be a misreading of sentiments in Taiwan. After all, Washington’s open backing of Ma in his 2012 reelection bid is now viewed by many on the island as unwarranted interference.
In any event, the election calendar favors Tsai. The next presidential contest occurs January 2016, probably not enough time for a battered Kuomintang to recover.