Taiwanese queue up to cast their ballots in a voting station in Taipei, Taiwan, on Saturday Nov 24, 2018. Taiwan holding local elections on Saturday at the mid-point of President Tsai Ing-wen's leadership and the focus will be on the island's sluggish economy and often fraught relations with China. While Tsai is not on the ballot, the polls are seen as a chance for the electorate to rate her performance as they vote for mayors, councils and other positions.

The pro-Beijing Kuomintang (KMT) and, consequently, China were seen as the biggest winners of Taiwan’s local elections last weekend. But the main victor in the November 24 vote was the island’s democracy.

In the midterms, also known as the “nine-in-one” elections as they cover nine levels of officials, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of President Tsai Ing-wen evidently lost ground to the KMT, or Nationalist Party. The independence-leaning DPP, which held 13 of Taiwan’s 22 mayoral seats before the polls, retained just six while its opposition won a total of 15, with an independent candidate, Ko Wen-je, being re-elected as Taipei mayor.

Among the seven seats the DPP lost were Kaohsiung and Taichung, the island’s second- and third-largest cities. Its defeat in Kaohsiung was certainly a devastating blow, because the southern port city has been the party’s stronghold for more than 20 years.

The elections for mayors and thousands of other local posts were seen as a referendum on President Tsai’s policies.

Ever since she and her DPP won a landslide victory in 2016’s general elections, Beijing has taken a wide range of tough measures that diplomatically isolate, militarily intimidate and economically punish the island. The main reason for this is her refusal to accept the so-called 1992 Consensus – an agreement that there is only one China though there exist different interpretations of it.

That’s why some international observers regarded the elections’ outcome as Taiwanese people’s rejection of her cross-Strait policy, and consequently, viewed it as a massive win for the mainland.

The view that the Taiwanese rejected Tsai’s “separatist policies” was particularly maintained by China.

Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, was quoted by Xinhua as saying on Sunday that the “results reflected the strong will of Taiwan’s general public to continue to share in the benefits of the peaceful development in cross-Strait relations, and their hopes to improve the economy and living standards.”

He added: “China will continue to uphold the 1992 Consensus, and to resolutely oppose separatist elements advocating ‘Taiwan independence’ and their activities.”

The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid published by the People’s Daily, China’s flagship paper, and the China Daily, another key mouthpiece for Beijing, echoed such views.

In an editorial on Sunday headlined “Strategic immaturity annihilates DPP’s rule,” the Global Times claimed that the DPP “failed because it lost the people’s support” and a key reason for such a failure was: “After taking office in 2016, Tsai refused to recognize the 1992 Consensus, a cornerstone agreement that stabilized the cross-Straits ties.”

On the same day, the official China Daily ran a similar piece, titled “Taiwan leader lost people’s hearts,” editorializing: “The Tsai administration’s pro-independence secessionism has not only soured its crucial relations with the Chinese mainland, but also made it unpopular on either side.”

Without doubt, Tsai came out of the elections as the biggest political loser even though Taiwan’s first female president was technically not on the ballot. Soon after the results came in, she announced she was stepping down as DPP chairwoman. Though the 62-year-old politician remains as president, her party’s crushing defeat puts her re-election chances in two years’ time in jeopardy.

In equal measure, China was rightly seen as a big winner. Judging by the reactions of its officials and key state-run media outlets, Beijing must be delighted with the outcomes. The pro-independence and Washington-friendly party’s loss to its pro-China rival will certainly strengthen Beijing’s hope of peacefully reuniting the island, which it regards as a breakaway province. It also hugely enhances its geopolitical leverage, especially at a time when China is weightily competing with the United States for regional influence and power.

Yet while they were might have been a factor, cross-Strait ties weren’t the only, or even the defining, issue in Taiwan’s local polls.

As in any other democratic country, it’s the Taiwanese, not their leaders, who decide, through free and fair elections, their country’s direction and the policies and services that affect their daily life and work

As noted, some of the Tsai government’s key domestic policies, such as pension and labor reforms, were not popular among many voters because, while they may benefit the 23.4-million-population island in the long term, its populace didn’t see or recognize the benefits of such changes at the moment. Frustrations about her cuts to pensions and a reduction in public holidays were seen as the main reasons behind her party’s defeat.

In any case, it is crystal clear, as in any other democratic country, it’s the Taiwanese, not their leaders, who decide, through free and fair elections, their country’s direction and the policies and services that affect their daily life and work.

In her remarks on Saturday night, Tsai acknowledged that fact, saying, “Today, democracy taught us a lesson,” and that she and her party “must study and accept the higher expectations of the people.”

In a rebuke to Ma Xiaoguang’s comments, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council reportedly stated that the holding of local elections and 10 referenda on a wide range of issues was Taiwan’s internal affair and its results were a demonstration of the core values of the island’s full-blown democracy.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated “Taiwan on another successful round of free and fair elections,” writing on Twitter on Saturday that its “hard-earned constitutional democracy is an example for the entire Indo-Pacific.”

Earlier, the US State Department praised “the people of Taiwan for once again demonstrating the strength of their vibrant democratic system through a successful round of elections.”

Evidently, like it or not, Chinese mainlanders as well as other people in other authoritarian one-party countries, don’t have such a luxury or a basic right.

It’s why, while they may enjoy the results of Taiwan’s local elections, authoritarian communist leaders in Beijing, who have ruled the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with absolute power, and at times with an iron fist, since its founding in 1949, without holding any democratic election, might not be pleased to witness such a democratic process unfolding.

In almost all key political, economic and social aspects – from economic freedom, to press freedomtransparency and democracy – Taiwan also fares much better than the PRC.

For instance, in its Freedom in the World 2018, Freedom House gave Taiwan a very high score of 93 (out of 100), the second-highest in Asia after Japan, while the PRC was given one of lowest scores (14).

What’s more, the Chinese leadership may realize that Taiwan’s policy for its future – such as whether it will reunify with the mainland or not – is ultimately decided by the Taiwanese people, not by a leader or a political party.

And while they might want a peaceful relationship with Beijing in order to enjoy the economic advantages the mainland offers, it is very unlikely, if not unthinkable, that Taiwanese people who have enjoyed liberty, democracy and their own way of life for decades will vote to be ruled by an authoritarian regime in Beijing, which has never ruled their island.

Their rejection of the KMT and its China-friendly policies in the 2016 elections is a case in point. Indeed, as already maintained, Taiwan’s vibrant democracy is the most daunting challenge facing China.

Judging by the results of the 2018 local polls and the 2016 general elections, it is quite obvious that the Taiwanese people prefer the status quo – or the middle-ground position. That’s also the best solution for the island.

Any pro-independence movement will anger the giant across the strait, which will, in turn, use its newfound power to make life extremely difficult for the island. An overtly pro-China posture won’t help Taiwan either as it will undermine its prospects in the long run. This is because if the island depends too heavily on the mainland for its economic development, sooner or later, its autonomy, democracy and even prosperity will be endangered.

Admittedly, if Beijing’s retaliations against South Korea for the deployment of a US anti-ballistic missile defense system, against the Philippines for the initiation of the South China Sea arbitration case or against Taiwan for the Tsai government’s refusal to accept the 1992 Consensus are any guide, it’s better for Taipei to take steps to diversify its economic ties. The New Southbound Policy, an initiative by the Tsai government to forge deeper ties with Southeast Asian nations and beyond, could be one of these measures.

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Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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