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.