Why the KMT Won Big

Many good points came up this morning at the meeting hosted here in Taibei by the Institute of National Policy Research and LSE. I will not attempt a full review of the various interpretations of the election results but, rather, simply pull out a number of ideas that particularly struck me.

One big question was the extent to which changes in the electoral system – reducing the number of candidates and simplifying districts – affected the outcome. At first blush it would appear that they did. The discrepancy between the share of votes and number of seats – the KMT won less than 60% of the vote (which is complicated because there are two ballots) but took 72% of the seats – suggests a structural problem in the way district boundaries are drawn. But after some difference of opinion on this question, I was persuaded by those who argued that it was not the primary cause of the big KMT win. Other factors loom larger.

At the top of the list is the alienation of DPP voters. Several analysts at the meeting pointed out that the outcome was less of an approval of the KMT than it was a dispproval of the DPP. The DPP, which holds the presidency, is seen as the incumbent party and is thus blamed for everything, including the sense of political gridlock and corruption that prevades the country. This may be unfair, since the KMT very much participates in the political legislative deadlock, but such is life for incumbents.

Chen Shui-Bian’s unpopularity also fed into the DPP disaster. He was criticized from both sides of the political divide: moderates pointed out that he was too beholden to “deep green” radicals in the party, while a spokesperson of the “deep green” side argued that he pandered too much to the moderates and thus was “too KMT.” I find this latter point hard to believe, but the contending views suggest that Chen, as a leader, could please no one. Not a good person to have at the front of your political party in an election.

While DPP diapproval was certainly a big part of the story, it must also be pointed out that the KMT took good advantage of the opportunities it had. It remained united, much more so than in the past. Party leaders and activists energized their base. Election rallies were spirited, attracting many average Taiwanese people. The identity issue (which I will write about further in another post) did not pose an obstacle: although the KMT has historically been viewed as a “Mainlander” party that holds more of a “Chinese” identity, in this election it is clear that many people who see themselves as “Taiwanese” supported KMT candidates.

The KMT also proved more effective in adapting to the new electoral system. They were able to field strong candidates and they were able to deploy their significant money and media resources. One analyst pointed out that the KMT had five newspaper ads for each one of the DPP’s. And the KMT was more innovative in its political communications, finding new symbols and images and rhetoric to craft an appealing message.

Whether the KMT momentum can now carry over to the March presidential election is an open question. Turnout for that poll is expected to be much higher than this legislative election. And if the DPP can bring their people back to the ballot box, they have a chance to make up some ground. The discussion here has centered on two possibilities: 1) the “pendulum effect,” where voters will be worried that the KMT will be too powerful if it holds both a large legislative majority and the executive branch, so they will swing back to vote DPP; and 2) the “watermelon effect” (the metaphor is a bit vague) which suggests people will gravitate toward the larger slice of the melon, the KMT, creating a bandwagon effect. I would be surprised if the pendulum can overcome the watermelon.

The last issue to mention here is the role of China. One participant at the meeting was fairly adamant: “This had nothing to do with China.” By that he meant that, as a legislative election, the voting was driven more by local issues than national concerns. And that is probably true. We should be careful in reading the results as a referendum on either party’s policy toward China, which, while relevant, did likely not play a dominant role. The Presidential election, with its explicitly national character, will tell us much more about the mood of Taiwan on the China question.

Yet even though China policy may not have been a major factor in determining the results of this election, the election will most likely have an important effect on Taiwan’s relationship with the PRC. The KMT takes a more compromising stance toward China, and that might take the heat off for a time, especially if Ma Ying-jeou wins in March. Beijing will respond to any KMT opening, and that will diffuse tensions for a time. And Washington is also happy. This might not be enough to find a long-term solution to the Taiwan issue, one that would protect the island’s political autonomy, but it will make cross-Straits politics a bit less tense for the next few years.


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