Taiwan’s four-question referendum results show a Kuomintang in serious decline

Taiwan’s four-question referendum ended without any “yes” votes being passed. The KMT, who initiated the referendum, failed to gain broad-based support for its positions despite an all-out campaign. Rather than the cosmetic reasons, Lu Xi sees the core cause of the KMT’s poor showing to be its outdated approach of pandering to the traditionalist “deep blue” camp in the party. It has to move with the times and get a better pulse on the electorate if it is to make any headway.
Former KMT chairman Johnny Chiang and incumbent KMT chairman Eric Chu join the annual Autumn Struggle labour protest, focusing on the opposition to the government's decision to allow imports of US pork containing ractopamine, and other issues related to the referendum in Taipei, Taiwan, 12 December 2021. (Ann Wang/Reuters)
Former KMT chairman Johnny Chiang and incumbent KMT chairman Eric Chu join the annual Autumn Struggle labour protest, focusing on the opposition to the government's decision to allow imports of US pork containing ractopamine, and other issues related to the referendum in Taipei, Taiwan, 12 December 2021. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Amid much hype, the results of Taiwan’s four-question referendum were released on 18 December. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was victorious on all four referendum proposals, including the one on pork imports containing ractopamine. The referendum got off to an intense start and ended dramatically, like the Battle of Sekigahara, determining Taiwan’s future political landscape.

The referendum hammered home the failure of the Kuomintang (KMT)'s current “deep blue” approach. Winning the 2024 presidential election is virtually impossible, while gaining any ruling power would be a very unlikely prospect for a long time to come. If not reformed and rebuilt, the KMT will inevitably retreat from the centre of Taiwan’s political power.   

The high consistency of vote shares across the different proposals implies that the Taiwanese did not consider the policies themselves when voting, and their voting behaviour was entirely determined by partisan positions.

A battle between partisan voters

Although the KMT invested huge campaigning efforts in its referendum proposals, the results show that the battle was very much one between the KMT and DPP political bases. Apart from the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant issue, the other three questions pulled in a stable 20% of votes for each party, with the DPP having a slight edge over the KMT. This percentage is basically consistent with the ratio of their bases. The extremely low voter turnout rate and the significant north-south divide in the distribution of votes also shows that few median voters voted.

Supporters attend a Kuomintang (KMT) party rally on the eve of the referendum in Taipei, Taiwan, 17 December 2021. (I-Hwa Cheng/Reuters)
Supporters attend a Kuomintang (KMT) party rally on the eve of the referendum in Taipei, Taiwan, 17 December 2021. (I-Hwa Cheng/Reuters)

The high consistency of vote shares across the different proposals implies that the Taiwanese did not consider the policies themselves when voting, and their voting behaviour was entirely determined by partisan positions.

Following their referendum defeat, the KMT reflected on technical issues that went wrong, such as setting the wrong goal, having poor internal execution, lacking communication between the party’s central leadership and local leaders, making mistakes during the referendum debates, and so on. But the real crisis far exceeds these technical errors.

Initially, the DPP was at an absolute disadvantage in the polls, having suffered the failure of a recall election in Taichung's second electoral constituency, and the Raphael Lin scandal. In response, the DPP chose the strategy of holding fast to its base. Although it only garnered 20% of the votes — four million less votes than what Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen received when she won the 2020 presidential election — it did so because of the right strategy. 

Supporters attend a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rally on the eve of the referendum in Taipei, Taiwan, 17 December 2021. (I-Hwa Cheng/Reuters)
Supporters attend a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rally on the eve of the referendum in Taipei, Taiwan, 17 December 2021. (I-Hwa Cheng/Reuters)

However, this was not the case with the KMT. As the initiator of the referendum, they engaged in large-scale publicity efforts such as street campaigns and night watch events, and also initiated referendum debates. However, the votes they garnered did not go beyond their political base, again proving that median voters have abandoned the KMT’s path; even if many issues are indeed of concern to them, they do not identify with the party’s stand and have chosen to deliberately avoid the pan-Blue coalition.

If the KMT still has any hope for the 2024 election, the key is how it uses Hou You-yi’s momentum.

The KMT in disarray

Taiwan society's abandonment of the KMT cannot be simplified as the victory of “an autocratic government that pretends to be a democracy”, as claimed by Eric Chu after the defeat. The root cause lies with the KMT itself.

Internally, it clings to outdated cross-strait arguments and acts without considering changing circumstances. The political ambitions of party veterans and a misaligned organisation structure also restrict the movements of the new generation, so that they cannot push for even the slightest reform.

As it fails to change its approach, the party’s influence cannot grow. And as it declines, it is forced to cling to its past flaws, which makes it even more resistant to changing its approach. This vicious cycle has been going on for years, with the result that the KMT’s supporters are getting older and their values getting more extreme. The whole party is moving towards the end of Taiwan’s political spectrum.

blue
People holding signs showing former Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo as they take part in the annual Autumn Struggle labour protest, focusing on the opposition to the government's decision to allow imports of US pork containing ractopamine, an additive that enhances leanness, and other issues related to the referendum in Taipei, Taiwan, 12 December 2021. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Rise of the pro-Taiwan camp within the KMT

Another influence of this referendum is that the pro-Taiwan camp within the KMT will rise quickly in the short term. As the face of the pro-Taiwan camp, New Taipei City mayor Hou You-yi has taken a firm stand of “non-violence non-cooperation” to the referendum. After taking a storm of castigation from the deep blue camp before the referendum for not toeing the party line, Hou has shown again his outstanding political judgement. If the KMT still has any hope for the 2024 election, the key is how it uses Hou’s momentum. If it can take this opportunity to step up on making the KMT more local, it still has a chance of survival.

 As for the KMT’s many local factions, this referendum had a limited negative impact on them. The votes in Yunlin and Hualien were only about 35% to 36%, even lower than the 40% average across Taiwan. While on the whole, the “yes” votes outnumbered the “no” votes among the local factions, it is also a fact that the voters did not go all out. For example, Yilan county magistrate, KMT’s Lin Zi-miao, was the first to publicly oppose the party’s leanings in the referendum. The results for the county were won by the DPP.

Then there is the recent incident of the prominent Yen family* in Taichung getting Taiwan Statebuilding Party’s Chen Po-wei removed from the Legislative Yuan through a recall election. Much resources were spent and with the forthcoming by-election, the Yen family was not able to mobilise people for the referendum.

But the flip side of preserving power is that losses are limited: whether the by-election in the Taichung second electoral constituency, or the 2022 local elections, this approach of self-preservation has given the KMT local factions a fighting chance in the future.

If it can see the reality and throw off its shackles to complete its transition, the KMT will be able to keep going as a political party. Otherwise, it will move faster and faster towards the proverbial stage left exit.

nuclear
Demonstrators take part in a march against nuclear power ahead of a referendum on whether the government should continue building the stalled Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, in Taipei, Taiwan, 5 December 2021. (Annabelle Chih/Reuters)

In short, this referendum is a total rejection of the KMT’s current deep blue approach. Objectively, it helps to tilt party power towards the non-mainstream camp. Also, the signals from mainland China have been getting clearer — in terms of cross-strait policy, it has totally abandoned KMT’s deep blue approach. For the mainstream camp within the party that thinks of Taiwan in terms of an outlying province, this referendum may have been a heavy loss, but there is also a silver lining.

If it can see the reality and throw off its shackles to complete its transition, the KMT will be able to keep going as a political party. Otherwise, it will move faster and faster towards the proverbial stage left exit.

*The Yen family refers to the political faction established by Yen Ching-piao and his family through religious organisations and local triad influence. The elder Yen had been elected legislator but was later imprisoned for corruption. His son Yen Kuan-heng took over and was elected to the Legislative Yuan under the KMT until he was defeated by Chen Po-wei of the Taiwan Statebuilding Party. 

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