Taiwan’s mid-term elections on 24 November brought a renewed “blue wave” to the island democracy. In this case, the blues are the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) and allies who favour rapprochement with China. The greens are the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and allies who favour greater local autonomy if not outright independence.
Elections for municipal mayors and councillors, township magistrates and representatives, and village chiefs saw defeat for the DPP. In the 2014 local elections, the DPP won 13 of the country’s 22 cities and counties, gaining momentum for their sweeping victory in the 2016 national elections. This time, the blues won 15 seats for the KMT and re-elected Taipei’s pro-China independent mayor Ko Wen-je. The DPP was left with six seats. As a result, President Tsai Ing-wen resigned her post as DPP chair.
This election was also an experiment with radical direct democracy. Last December, the government amended the Referendum Act so that citizens who gain enough signatures on a petition can bring up a referendum question. If 25% of eligible voters participate, a simple majority of “yes” votes outnumbering “no” votes is sufficient for a proposition to pass. This time there were ten propositions: three on energy policy, one on banning agricultural imports from areas affected by Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster, three on same-sex marriage, two on the Gender Equality Education Act, and one on Taiwan’s name for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
A Step Backward on LGBT Rights
Taiwan, which hosts the largest pride parades in Asia, is often seen as a rare oasis of progressive thought. In May 2017, Taiwan’s Supreme Court had ruled that it is unconstitutional to ban same-sex couples from getting married and that legislators must implement laws for marriage equality within two years. Since then, however, conservative groups have mobilized their forces with tactics ranging from street protests to social media propaganda.
As the public became increasingly polarized, conservative groups proposed two referendum questions. The first was “Do you agree that marriage defined in the Civil Code should be restricted to the union between one man and one woman?” The second was “Do you agree to the protection of the rights of same-sex couples in co-habitation on a permanent basis in ways other than changing of the Civil Code?” In response, LGBT groups proposed the referendum question “Do you agree to the protection of same-sex marital rights with marriage as defined in the Civil Code?” The two conservative referendums passed, and the pro-marriage equality proposition was rejected. Likewise, voters rejected the 2004 Gender Equality Education Act for its content on LGBT rights.
It is unclear how legislators and judges will deal with these results. Subjecting the rights of a minority to the whim of the majority is in itself a step backwards in human rights. Since the courts have already weighed in on marriage equality, moreover,has pointed out that this could become a major constitutional crisis. No matter if President Tsai chooses to uphold the Constitution or implement the results of the popular referendum, this issue will drive a wedge into an already polarized population and cast doubt on Taiwan’s democratic institutions.
No “Taiwan” in the Olympics
Leaders in Beijing breathed a sigh of relief because voters rejected the proposal to change their country’s official name in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to Taiwan. Since the 1979 Nagoya Resolution, which Taipei accepted in 1981, Taiwanese athletes have competed as “Chinese Taipei.” Taiwan is not permitted to use its own name, flag, or anthem. The referendum itself angered China, which pressured the East Asian Olympic Committee last July to cancel the Youth Games scheduled for 2019 in Taichung. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) warned Taiwan and its Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee onthat name changes lie under IOC jurisdiction and that there could be negative consequences if Taiwan asked for a name change. The referendum to change the team’s name from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan” did not pass.
Surprise in Taiwan’s South
For the blues, the most important victory was in Taiwan’s second-largest city of Kaohsiung, which elected a KMT mayor for the first time in 20 years. KMT maverick candidate, 61-year-old Han Kuo-yu, head of a Taipei-based vegetable marketing association, won the election after mobilizing social media and mass rallies with promises of economic growth and Trump-like slogans to “Make Kaohsiung great!” Han, who is reputed to have gangster ties and once assaulted and hospitalized ex-president Chen Shui-bian when they were both legislators, stepped out of politics in 2002. His return amidst a rapid surge to popularity on social media was such a surprise thateven accused China of interference. Like Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, but also like Donald Trump and Ontario’s Doug Ford, such a brazen outsider can win an election when people get tired of a familiar group of political insiders.
This election was not a referendum on Taiwan’s political status. Since Tsai was elected in 2016, public servants have seen their pensions cut, workers have fewer public holidays, and businesspeople have lost business with China. As ordinary people felt left behind economically, they were less attracted to rhetoric about minority rights or name rectification and voted for candidates who promised broad prosperity. It was not a complete conservative sweep, however. For example, 31-year-old lesbian, one of the proponents of marriage equality, won the Taipei council race representing the Social Democratic Party.
As in recent elections in the US, Europe, and Brazil, Taiwan’s mid-term election looks more like a protest vote from an increasing frustrated and divided electorate. Since the pro-independence camp is now the ruling party, such sentiments could easily bring to power a populist right-wing government seeking closer relations with authoritarian China. The global trend against progressive liberalism has now reached Taiwan, posing the same challenges for democracy there as elsewhere.