Tag Archives: President Ma

Taiwan – By-elections 2015: Results and Lessons

The February 2015 by-elections saw contestation of five legislative seats vacated following success in the 9-in-1 local elections in November 2014. The electoral routing of the Kuomintang (KMT) party in November raised the possibility of a similar Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) dominance in the by-elections. That did not come to be: the elections saw both parties retain seats previously held by their respective parties, with three going to the DPP and two to KMT. The legislative composition is unchanged: the 113-seat legislature has 64 seats for the KMT and 40 for the DPP. The newly-elected legislators will serve short-terms until the next national legislative elections in January 2016. Turnout was low, averaging mid-30 percent, with the lowest in Taichung (30.76 percent) and the highest in Nantou (37.07 percent). The low turnout was probably not unexpected given by-elections, although it was likely affected further by TransAsia air crash tragedy, and low-key or cancelled campaigns in the final week of the race due to the tragedy.

What lessons do the by-elections hold? The status-quo outcome, following the disproportionate loss for the KMT in the local elections, suggests lessons for both parties: first, President Ma’s unpopularity does not translate into electoral liability if his influence in the KMT is dialled-back; second, the DPP’s electoral viability rests on progress beyond an anti-President Ma platform.

Going into the by-elections, the KMT took significant steps to address President Ma’s unpopularity to diminish the electoral liability. Following President Ma’s resignation as party-leader, the KMT elected Eric Chu, New Taipei City mayor, as new party leader. Thus far, Chu has signalled a move towards greater transparency in a bid to woo support for the party; for instance, he launched a probe into the KMT assets, which party-elders had resisted. Along the same lines, the KMT party-leader has also indicated that the party may rescind its case to oust legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng, a flashpoint of public disapproval for the KMT. The KMT government has also granted medical parole for former President Chen Shui-bian, also widely seen as a reconciliatory effort across party lines that also redeems the KMT’s public standing. These efforts have stemmed additional political backlash, as the by-election results indicate. If the KMT and its political leaders make further inroads on transparency and responsiveness to the public, the party is likely to gain electoral viability for the 2016 elections.

The DPP was optimistic going into the by-elections, and party-chair and possible 2016-presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen actively campaigned for the five DPP legislative contenders. However, the party suffered from its decision to withdraw its DPP candidate, Wu Yi-chen, to back former Sunflower movement student leader Chen Wei-ting as an independent in the Miaoli county district. When Chen dropped out of the race because of previous sexual harassment incidents, the party scrambled for a replacement, ultimately returning to Wu as the party candidate. Wu garnered a respectable 32,966 votes against KMT’s Hsu Chih-jung (47,105) in a KMT-traditional stronghold. Still, the episode – in the context of the overall by-election outcomes – underlines the DPP’s electoral viability for 2016 rests beyond anti-President Ma sentiments.

Taiwan – Ma’s Presidential Blues

Taiwan’s President Ma jing-yeou has seen better days. The leader and his Kuomingtang (KMT) party-led Pan-Blue camp swept into the executive and legislature in 2008 and effectively took control of the semi-presidential system. The 2008 run ended the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s 8-year hold on the presidency and reduced the DPP’s plurality in the legislature from 40 percent to 24 percent (although the DPP increased electoral support in that election). Fast-forward to 2012: Ma successfully retained the presidential office, and the KMT-led Pan-Blue camp retained its legislative majority, albeit reduced to 64 seats. Analysts and pollsters noted the Taiwan electorate’s endorsement of the KMT-directive to continue to build ties with China, and it seemed that all was on track for the reelected leader and party to focus on reviving a weakening economy under conditions of the global financial crisis.

Yet, less than two years later, President Ma appears to be in a battle for his political life: he is facing single-digit approval ratings and mass protests calling for his resignation from the office.

Political development clearly benefits from greater government accountability, but when citizens mobilize to demand for greater accountability – such as these protests against President Ma – the vitality of the thousands or tens of thousands acting beyond periodic elections spurs efforts to harness that momentum towards concrete, documentable outcomes. These include demands for executive recall or even constitutional change.

It is no small irony that even as the protests against Ma are founded on the personalistic nature of his presidency – in particular, his effort to oust legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng is seen as a political move that oversteps the separation of powers in semi-presidential and presidential systems – some of the changes demanded by protestors also move away from stable, institutional (constitutional) politics. It is, thus, opportune to consider: what changes improve the survival of the president as an institution in the semi-presidential system system but not that of the occupant?

Studies on semi-presidential systems note the instability of the political system in minority and deadlock conditions, particularly in comparison to their parliamentary counterparts.[1] These studies have spurred additional works that emphasize the importance of distinguishing between the performance of the political system and government’s policy performance to ensure government accountability without rejecting the political system in the process.[2]

Based on these studies, the answers are clear. Presidential approval/disapproval are fertile grounds for change if these changes relate to government accountability for policy performance. In the context of Taiwan, they may be used to impel changes that underlie policy performance and government accountability for that performance. Yet, importantly, caution must be exercised if approval/disapproval and protests are used to undergird institutional changes to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The term limits on the president means that Ma will not be eligible to stand for another election. This means that voters will not have the satisfaction of heaving him out of office. This may explain the swelling of protests to oust him out mid-term. Yet, it is no small irony that one recommendation for constitutional change to increase greater accountability and presidential approval while stabilizing the presidential system is to remove the term limits.[3]

References

[1] See some excellent discussions in Elgie (2011), Cheibub and Chernykh (2008), and Samuels and Shugart (2010).

[2] Mattes and Bratton (2007), Duch (2001), Yap (2013)

[3] Cheibub (2002)