TAIPEI - Taiwan's ruling China-friendly Nationalist Party was thrashed in nationwide mayoral races on Saturday, reflecting widespread apprehension among voters about President Ma Ying-jeou's mainland policies that have led to growing Chinese influences over the island.
The Nationalists lost in nine of its existing 15 constituencies and secured only six out of all 22 seats. The most damaging losses came from the party's defeats in the capital Taipei and central city of Taichung, two traditional Nationalist strongholds that can make or break a candidate's chances in the 2016 presidential election. Taiwanese Premier Jiang Yi-huah has resigned over the ruling party's trouncing.
Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen of the main opposition pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party said the poll results herald the "prologue of historic changes." Tsai is now the opposition's runaway favorite to run in the 2016 presidential election after she resuscitated the DPP from its devastation by corruption scandals and led the party to achieve its best result ever of 13 seats in mayoral elections.
"The Nationalists' defeat serves as a warning for us too: If the government does not stand on the side of the people, the people can take power back from the government any time," Tsai said. "The future direction of Taiwan will depend on the collective wisdom of all the parties and citizens."
The election outcome appears to reflect the disillusion of average Taiwanese with Ma's promise to boost Taiwan's economy with stronger China economic ties as the island has seen limited growth and stagnant wages since the leader took office in 2008. A growing number of Taiwanese have come to argue the president's platforms are only beneficial to big conglomerates with significant China investment.
The rising China fear was best illustrated by the Sunflower Movement in late March when students occupied the legislature to protest the Nationalists' attempt to expedite the approval of a new mainland service trade pact. Activists say the deal will hurt small and midsize businesses in Taiwan.
Many in Taiwan have also voiced concerns that closer cross-strait ties will allow Beijing to undermine Taiwan's political freedom and sovereignty, especially in light of China's recent crude treatment of the democracy movement in Hong Kong. Beijing has never abandoned its plan to unite with the island through all means possible, including use of force, though the two sides split amid civil war in 1949.
Public ire with the Ma administration surged when a string of tainted oil scandals erupted in September and stirred up extensive food safety concerns.
After Saturday's thrashing, Ma apologized to party supporters and said he understood the message voters are trying to send.
"My responsibility now is to offer reform plans as soon as possible to respond to people's entreaties," Ma said, without elaborating on details. "The Nationalist Party will not be knocked out easily."
Saturday night's biggest victory actually went to independent Taipei mayoral candidate Ko Wen-je, a former doctor and a novice politician running his first-ever campaign, against the Nationalist opponent Sean Lien, son of Taiwan's former Vice President Lien Chan.
The DPP worked with Ko instead of nominating its own candidate to maximize the opposition's opportunity to win in the Nationalist heartland.
While Ko is seen to take a moderate China approach while asserting Taiwan's status as a sovereign state, Sean Lien has been described contemptuously by some detractors as "Beijing's agent" as he and his father have met with Chinese leaders several times.
In his victory speech, Ko said he will continue all existing city-level exchanges with Chinese municipalities including Shanghai.
DPP's most significant victory came from Taichung City with former Cabinet spokesman Lin Chia-lung crushing incumbent Jason Hu of the Nationalists.
There were two additional surprise victories for the DPP in the northern Taiwanese county of Taoyuan and city of Hsinchu, and the party also seized Keelung City, Changhua county, Chiayi City, and Penghu County from the Nationalists.
The Nationalists' drubbing was severe. The party even struggled to hold onto New Taipei City in northern Taiwan, its incumbent Eric Chu only managed to win by fewer than 25,000 votes with a total of 1.9 million cast ballots. Chu was originally expected to enjoy a comfortable lead that would boost his chance to become the party's presidential nominee in 2016.