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Asia

Taiwanese send 'democratic message' to ruling Kuomintang

Taiwanese voters feel their island's economic rapprochement with China is going too fast. They are also angry over the growing levels of social injustice. Now they have punished the ruling Kuomintang party at the polls.

In a widely expected move after the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party's landslide defeat in the November 29 local elections, Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou said on Tuesday, December 2, he was stepping down as party chairman. Ma's resignation from the post, however, does not affect his position as Taiwan's president. The politician is serving his second, and final, four-year term as president, which ends in 2016.

The ruling party's worse-than-expected performance had already led to the resignation of both the island's premier, Jiang Yi-huah, and the cabinet. The KMT now rules in only six cities and districts, down from 15. A total of 41 percent of voters cast their ballots for KMT candidates, while 48 percent voted for the opposition democratic Progressive Party (DDP).

Ma under fire

Nevertheless, the resignations of senior party members weren't enough to appease concerns within the party. President Ma, who for years had ignored the signals from the electorate, now finds himself under fire.

Wahlen in Taiwan 29.11.2014

The KMT's worse-than-expected performance had led to the resignation of both the island's premier, Jiang Yi-huah, and the cabinet

After winning the 2012 presidential election with a large majority, Ma's approval ratings started to drop quickly. He became so unpopular that in March this year many Taiwanese decided to support the student demonstrators who occupied the parliament building in Taipei for four weeks, in a bid to block a planned free trade pact calling for closer ties with Beijing.

"Ma's China policy and the 'Sunflower' student movement have led to an anti-China and anti-KMT environment," said Eric Yu, political analyst at the National Chengchi University in Taipei, adding that many young Taiwanese have witnessed a political awakening. It was their actions and commitment which contributed significantly to the KMT's recent defeat at the local polls, he added, particularly in the capital Taipei where the winner was in fact not a DPP member, but an independent who was strongly supported both by the DPP and young voters.

Anger over inequality

Beijing regards Taiwan as a "renegade province." The international community doesn't recognize the island republic as a sovereign state. This has led to growing concern amongst the Taiwanese people that an increasing economic dependency on mainland China could cost the island its political freedom. The KMT argues that free trade pact negotiations with Beijing are necessary in order to guarantee the island's competitiveness, and that the only way to secure economic growth is hence to continue to reduce trade barriers.

However, many Taiwanese have realized that the benefits stemming from this approach are unevenly distributed: While big corporations and investors on both sides of the Strait profit, Taiwan's workers complain about lower wages and rising prices.

As a result, many job starters and young families have turned their backs on the KMT. "Our generation is asking what has happened," says 25-year-old Iris Chiu, who writes for a student magazine. Chiu hasn't failed to notice that the number of Taiwanese being removed from their lands to make way for high-rise buildings, factories or large construction projects is on the rise since 2012. "When we take a closer look at the social issues here, we find much injustice. And that makes us furious."

China policy is crucial

The opposition DPP, which has traditionally been skeptical over closer ties with Beijing, owed the recent electoral victory in large part to the voter's frustration with the KMT. In terms of dealing with Beijing, DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen has been more pragmatic than the hardliners in his party.

Instead of pushing for an official declaration of independence, Tsai prefers to remind her followers of the island republic's status quo. She argues that Taiwan has de facto long been independent under the name "Republic of China." The most important thing, Tsai says, is to consolidate democracy.

But Beijing's preferred model of "one country, two systems" doesn't attract many supporters in Taiwan. While the Ma-led administration rejects the proposal, calling it "unacceptable," the opposition DPP simply points out that the political future of the 23 million Taiwanese is yet to be decided.

Moreover, in the former British colony of Hong Kong, Beijing keeps ignoring demands for more democracy under the "one country, two systems" model. For months, mostly young protesters have been taking to the streets of the semi-autonomous region.

Taiwan Proteste in Taipeh 30.03.2014

Back in March student demonstrators occupied the parliament building for four weeks in a bid to block a planned free trade pact with Beijing

The territory's pro-democracy movement is also been followed closely in Taiwan. "Hong Kong is a part of China and this cannot be changed," said 30-year-old journalist Aldora Cheng. "But we want to keep our democracy. When politicians use the economy as a pretext to push Taiwan ever-more into the direction of mainland China, this will ultimately lead to a forced unification."

Convincing Taiwan

President Ma wants to close further free trade deals with Beijing and establish special economic zones for investors from the Mainland. However, given the current mood in Taiwan, Ma will find it difficult to realize his plans before the end of his second and final term in 2016. There is simply a lack of trust.

"The People's Republic needs to convince Taiwan that it won't use its economic might as political leverage," says analyst Yu. "Only then will the Taiwanese be willing to accept further economic rapprochement."