The defeat of Taiwan’s Kuomintang in a weekend referendum has brought into focus the question of whether the main opposition party can make a comeback in 2024, or if Beijing will have to continue to deal with the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.
The KMT suffered a substantial setback on Saturday after the island’s voters rejected four referendum proposals it had championed as a potential show of no confidence in the DPP.
The mainland-friendly party had hoped to use the referendum to boost its chances in next year’s local government elections. Various opinion surveys predicted the KMT had a chance of success because more voters were dissatisfied with the four government trade and energy policies put to a vote by the KMT and two civic groups.
Beijing, which considers Taiwan its territory that must be taken under control, by force if necessary, favours the KMT returning to power because the party has more conciliatory cross-strait policies than the DPP.
The KMT asked the electorate to vote in favour of its proposal to reinstate a ban lifted in January by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on the import of United States pork treated with the food additive ractopamine.
It also asked voters to support its proposal to hold referendums at the same time as general elections, saying it would encourage more people to head to the polls.
The two other proposals were raised by local civic groups and addressed reactivating an unfinished nuclear power plant to resolve the power shortage issue, and banning the government from building a liquefied natural gas plant at an algal reef for the protection of aquatic wildlife and the environment.
Saturday’s polls saw some 4.1 million voters rejecting all four proposals against 3.9 million who voted in favour. There was a lower than expected turnout of just 41 per cent, compared with more than 55 per cent who voted in 2018 when referendums were held alongside elections for public office.
But since the number of voters who favoured the proposals fell short of the required number of votes, the referendum was considered void. Under Taiwanese law, a referendum succeeds with a simple majority of at least a quarter of eligible voters, numbering close to 20 million this year – meaning they had to secure 5 million valid votes for them to be adopted.
Observers said that although the failure was a blow to the KMT, it did not necessarily point to the party losing elections next year.
“The referendum poll results should not be treated as an indicator of next year’s local government elections. There is no doubt it would hurt the morale of the KMT, but an election is something else as it is a contest of not only policies but also the choices of people and political parties,” said Li Da-jung, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
He said the KMT needed to swiftly start preparing for next year’s race, to forge internal unity and boost its communication with both the public and party members.
A lack of unity has been cited by local news media and pundits as a major reason the KMT failed after several KMT local government heads – including New Taipei mayor Hou Yu-ih and Taichung mayor Lu Shiow-yen – did not respond to directions by party chairman Eric Chu Li-luan to mobilise supporters to vote in favour of the proposals.
Both Hou and Lu have rated as among the top 10 local government leaders in various opinion polls.
Shih Cheng-feng, a professor of political science at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan, said it would be premature to predict that the DPP would stay in power after Tsai ends her second term in 2024.
“The DPP was given huge government resources to defend Tsai and her administration in the referendum, but it was only able to motivate support from just 4.1 million voters – mostly its core vote. When compared with some 8.17 million voters who gave their ballots to Tsai in her re-election in 2020, there is a difference of 4 million,” Shih said.
This meant many neutral voters, or those with no political party affiliation, did not support Tsai and her government’s policies, and in the end did not vote, Shih said.
Shih noted that of the 22 cities and counties in Taiwan, the DPP won full support from eight while the KMT had the full support of 12, including the city of Taoyuan, headed by DPP mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, who is seen as a potential successor of Tsai.
“It remains to be seen if the DPP will be able to win next year’s local government elections, which are viewed as the key indicator for the 2024 presidential elections,” Shih said.
Currently, the KMT controls 14 of the 22 cities and counties on the island.