The Changing Political Landscape in Taiwan: Implications of the Special Municipality Elections

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 24

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou

Taiwanese voters cast their ballots on November 27 under the shadow of an unexpected and mysterious gunshot on the eve of five special municipality elections. These five municipalities are home to 60 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million people. In the lead up to the elections, political observers had branded this vote as a midterm election for the Ma Ying-Jeou administration, which could have significant implications for the party’s and administration’s domestic as well as foreign policies, particularly toward China. While the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) held on to three northern and central cities (i.e. Taipei City, Taipei County, which will be renamed New Taipei City [Sinbei City] after its upgrade), and Greater Taichung City, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) maintained control of two southern cities, Greater Tainan City and Greater Kaohsiung City. Immediately after the election, President Ma Ying-jeou proclaimed that the results of special municipality elections clearly show that the government’s cross-Strait policy is acceptable to the majority of Taiwan’s people (Taiwan Today, November 29; China Post, November 29). Yet, taking the overall result at face value is misleading for both the ruling KMT and the opposition DPP. A closer look at the results reveals a few important changing currents already appearing under the existing "status quo."

The shooting was an ill-fated incident. The victim was the son of ruling KMT Honorary Chairman Lien Chan, Sean Lien. According to the information released by the police investigation so far, Lien was shot by a local gangster who had reportedly mistaken Lien for the Taipei County councilor candidate, Chen Hung-yuan, whom Lien was campaigning for on the evening of November 26. Lien is in stable condition after surgery, but the shooting’s impact on the election is still open for speculation. Having taken place on the eve of the election, the consensus among political observers was that the shooting likely generated sympathetic votes among the pan-Blue supporters.  The former and current honorary KMT chairman, Wu Bo-Hsiung, openly stated that “to say there is no effect is a lie” when he appeared in the KMT headquarters right after the election results were revealed (The Liberty Times, November 28). A KMT insider even estimated that the shooting at least drew an additional 4-5 percent turnout rate in the north and central elections in favor of KMT, while a DPP source claimed that this single gunshot may have cost DPP at least  one mayoral seat, namely, Greater Taichung City (The Liberty Times, November 29). Furthermore, a post-election poll showed that the 66.5 percent of the respondents also believed it had turned around the election results to favor KMT, and 53.5 percent even maintained that the shooting in fact had “saved” KMT (Taiwan Thinktank press release, December 1).

Some observers of Taiwanese politics believe that the fear of social and political instability provoked by the shooting, plus the tactful victimization of Lien’s shooting by KMT campaigns in the wee hours of the race, and the constant news broadcasts based on the incomplete fact and speculative information of the shooting have increased the turn out of conservative over progressive voters. If these factors are indeed true, then the shooting accident may have saved KMT from losing more than two out of five competitive mayoral seats. 

Contrary to what various polls suggested prior to the election, the DPP did not succeed in gaining one more city beyond the south, although it was very close to achieving victory in the central Greater Taichung City race, losing by a very small margin of 2.5 percent. For the KMT, it was also frustrating that it only maintained the north and center and failed to make any significant gains in the south, though it is politically significant that it kept the Capital Taipei City. Therefore, at first glance, the election results confirm the “status quo” as far as the general political landscape is concerned (Taipei Times, November 28). Yet, taking the overall result at face value would be misguiding for both the ruling KMT and the opposition DPP.

The DPP has succeeded in narrowing the gap in popular support in both the northern and central urban areas. The difference of votes between DPP and KMT in Taipei City is 55.65 percent vs. 43.81 percent, almost 12 percent behind, but in New Taipei City the gap has narrowed to 52.61 percent vs. 47.39 percent, only a little more than 4 percent behind. In Greater Taichung City, the differential has been closer to 48.88 percent vs. 51.12 percent, just a slight higher than 2 percent loss. On the other hand, DPP has won a landslide victory in both Greater Tainan City and Greater Kaohsiung City with much more significant margins. In Greater Tainan City, DPP received 60.41 percent in comparison to KMT’s 39.59 percent, a victory by more than 20 percent. In Greater Kaohsiung City, the situation is even more dramatic, as the DPP candidate (52.80 percent) overwhelmed both KMT (20.52 percent) and Independent (26.68 percent) rivals by securing more than half the vote. The winning margin is as high as 26 percent and 32 percent. The above statistics clearly demonstrate that DPP has not only secured and consolidated its political base in the south, but also appears to be marching toward the center in terms of its good showing in Greater Taichung City.

Although the DPP did not make significant advances in the north in terms of number of seats, these elections have accumulated over a total of 400,000 more votes for the DPP than KMT, a comparison between 49.87 percent (or 3.8 million votes) for DPP and 44.54 percent (or 3.4 million votes) for KMT. It reflects a continuous rise in the level of popular support, which the DPP has enjoyed since its embarrassing loss in the 2008 presidential election. It is also a sign that DPP has moved upward to the highpoint of the voting pattern back in 2004 when DPP won 50.11 percent over KMT’s 49.89 percent in the one-to-one presidential election. On the contrary, KMT has climbed to its peak in the 2008 presidential election and has steadily declined since. The contrasting rise and fall of voting patterns for the two major Taiwanese political parties in the past six years shed some light on party politics in Taiwan (see Table 1) and its current trajectory.

                   Table 1: Voting Patterns 2004-2010 (in percent)



Presidential Election


Legislative Election


City & County Election


Legislative Election

2008 Presidential Election

2009 City &

County Election


Special Municipality Election

















Source: Taipei Times, November 29, 2010.                                                                                            

The voting trend reflected above also has a direct implication for the declining public support of Ma Ying-jeou’s KMT government since his landslide victory in 2008. President Ma defeated the DPP candidate by 2.2 million votes in the 2008 presidential election, but he lost 1.0 million in those cities and counties in the 2009 local (rural) election and in this special municipality election Ma lost another 1.2 million votes in the five (urban) centers. In other words, Ma appears to have lost much of the edge he had between 2008 and 2010 in these electorates. Such decline of KMT’s public support could be interpreted as a reflection of Ma’s sagging popularity in the midterm test of Ma’s KMT government performance. Although the KMT has tried to play down the link between the municipality election results and Ma’s overall evaluation in the public mind, it is actually what many political analysts and media commentators had in mind right before the election (Taiwan Brain Trust seminar, November 24). Therefore, the apparent "status quo" is in fact a setback to Ma and his KMT government in gaining sustained public support by means of good performance and progressive reforms. The KMT regime must not ignore the increasing collective dissatisfaction and frustration when facing the upcoming Legislative Yuan election in 2011 and the presidential election in 2012.

The Taiwanese electorate seems to be increasingly unsatisfied with Ma’s poor overall domestic policy performance in solving the worsening unemployment, widening income inequality, resentment toward Ma’s detached and alienated attitudes toward grassroots organizations, and the government’s reactionary policies against freedom of speech, labor welfare, and the environment, which have all made the public even more resentful.

As for the promised positive and beneficial effect of the signing Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China that might bring to Taiwanese society, the critics and the public alike are suspicious and question who would benefit and who would suffer (Taiwan Advocate, 2009; Taiwan Thinktank, 2010; Taiwan Brain Trust, 2010). In light of the above analysis, some foreign press in their post-election assessments have asserted that the showing of KMT to keep 3 to 2 “victory” in the election proving Ma’s pro-China policy and improved cross-Straits relations have gained public support might be too hasty and too superficial (cited in United Daily, November 29).

Another important dimension of the election results is that for the first time in any previous related elections, DPP has won an equal number of city councilor seats as KMT, with each claiming 130 seats. DPP even dominated Greater Tainan City Council with 27 vs. 13 over KMT, while in New Taipei City, Greater Taichung City and Greater Kaohsiung City, DPP seats are close to that of KMT, despite the fact that KMT still dictates the Taipei City Council. This unprecedented change may indicate that local politics are no longer in the hand of KMT, and the DPP has finally proven successful in its efforts to deepen its power base at the grassroots level. It is indeed a significant step of progress to witness how the DPP has begun to root itself in the local politics.

Moreover, the election seems to reflect that the DPP was able to distance itself from the legal, political and even moral liabilities attached to its former leader, Chen Shui-bian. During the course of the election, under the severe attacks of KMT to link DPP with Chen’s family corruption, all DPP candidates correctly stated that they supported Chen’s judiciary rights as a citizen under the Constitution and respected the judiciary process in which Chen is being tried. In other words, the election may mark the first large scale election since 2008 where the DPP has effectively overcome Chen’s mixed legacy in the eyes of the electorate.

Finally, the aforementioned poll also reveals that from the course of election campaigns, 42.7 percent of the public found DPP to be more determined to push reforms, while only 33.2 percent believed that KMT is more reform-minded. Even the self-identified independent voters argued that DPP rather than KMT is more ready for reforms; the ratio of the observation is 35 percent vs. 19 percent, which represents a significant cleavage. Ma should heed the warning signs of losing 2.2 million votes since 2008 and the lost 400,000 votes this time. It will be interesting to examine whether or not the KMT government will seriously implement Ma’s pledge to continue reforms after the election when Ma asked his party leaders for a thorough review to find the factors causing the party to fall behind in votes. At this moment, it is unclear if Ma will learn a lesson from the election and carry out progressive reforms and take more a measured stance toward China in the remaining years of his first, and possibly last, term.