Four alarming indications from Taiwan's nine-in-one elections

The ruling DPP administration must ask if they prepared to face the threat from China, as well as problems within their party

President and outgoing DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)

President and outgoing DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) (CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- The results of Saturday's local elections have been announced, and they were far worse than a simple electoral defeat for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The party's debacle in the elections provides four disquieting messages:

- First, our political landscape has become an outlet for popular entertainment, and people exposed to television are more likely to vote for populist politicians.

The victory of the Kuomintang's (KMT) Hou You-yi (侯友宜), who declined to join a public debate with other New Taipei mayoral candidates, and KMT's Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), who displayed his ignorance on Kaohsiung's development during a debate with the DPP mayoral candidate Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁), shows that anti-intellectualism is holding back the country's democratic development.

This puts the island country's democracy at risk as its neighbor China resorts to every conceivable means of sabotaging Taiwan's democratic progress made over the past few years.

- Second, the DPP politicians are out of touch, and they have a hard lesson to learn from the elections. Two years and ten months after the party's overwhelming victory in presidential and legislator elections in 2016, the DPP lost its stronghold of Kaohsiung among several others, and will end up controlling only six out of 22 cites and counties they previously held, despite the fact that their candidates are more presentable by the standards of academic achievement as well as political experience.

Their failure can be interpreted as a consequence of the attitudes of the DPP's top officials, who have appeared aloof and out of touch with Taiwanese voters. This is a characterization which President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her team have often faulted the press for, arguing that the media is preoccupied with scrutinizing her communication style instead of the content of administration policies.

- Third, Tsai's strategy for reforms has failed. Tsai sets the wrong priorities for reforms, so the most pressing judicial reform remains pending, while reforms regarding the controversial work day (one fixed day off and one flexible rest day) has been pushed through.

Another controversial issue, marriage equality, has now received much attention from the Cabinet, but only after a majority of people in the country registered their strong opposition to any attempt at amending the Civil Code in order to legalize same-sex marriages.

The failure to accelerate the pace of judicial reform and to address other pressing issues, despite the DPP's control in the Legislative Yuan and the Cabinet has severely disappointed Tsai's supporters, which brings the administration to its current debacle.

- Fourth, meddling by Beijing looms over Taiwan's elections. Disinformation originating from China has polluted the island country's social media platforms skewing voter perception in favor of pro-Beijing candidates. Despite having knowledge of Chinese election interference, which failed in the U.S. midterm elections, the Tsai government was unable to wield the upper hand. Instead, weak counteractions against disinformation and fake news allowed China's operatives to sway public opinion and the election results.

It's not hard to imagine that China will continue to perform such tricks in the lead up to Taiwan's 2020 presidential and legislature elections. The DPP and the government should ask themselves: are they prepared to face the threat of an even more intense campaign of cyber-warfare and disinformation?

Chang Guo-tsai (張國財), former Deputy Secretary General of Taiwan Association of University Professors. Translated by Taiwan News editor Sophia Yang.