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Outlook for the 2016 presidential and legislative elections

On 24 November 2015, the ECCT arranged a Premium Event Lunch together with ICRT to talk about the prospects for the January 2016 presidential and legislative elections for the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The event featured a lively discussion with panelists Dr Shen Fu-Hsiung, Political and Economic Commentator; Dr Nathan Batto, Assistant Research Fellow, Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica; Huang Yu-chun, International Team Executive Secretary, KMT and Dr Ketty W Chen, Director of Research, Association of Public Issues Studies. The discussion was moderated by Keith Menconi, ICRT News Anchor & Host of Taiwan Talk and Taiwan This Week.

All of the panelists, with the exception of Huang Yu-chun, expect a comfortable victory for DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen. Huang expects the gap in support ratings between Tsai and KMT candidate Eric Chu to narrow considerably in the time leading up to the election. According to Dr Shen Fu-Hsiung, the KMT sealed its fate when none of the party's heavyweights volunteered to stand for election during the initial party primary, which was unprecedented in the party's history. Its subsequent decision to replace its original candidate Hung Hsiu-chu with Eric Chu was seen by the general public as a desperate measure.

According to Dr Nathan Batto, the KMT's move to oust Legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng brought the party's internal squabbles into the open, which they have not been able to recover from since. According to Huang, Hung's comments on cross-Strait relations, which were too far removed from mainstream public opinion, made it necessary to replace her as the candidate.

According to Batto, the number of people who identify themselves as KMT supporters has been steadily declining over the past few years, from around 40% in 2012 to just over 20% today while the DPP's core supporters have been steadily increasing and now outnumber the KMT's core supporters. For him, this is the most important indicator and trend to watch. As for the margin of victory, Batto expects Tsai's current 20 percentage point lead in opinion polls to be maintained and translate into the same proportion of votes on election day.

As for what the most important issue of the 2016 election is, Batto said that every election in Taiwan is about China and that this year will be no different. Shen expects turnout for the 2016 election to be around 70% (lower than previous elections) and Tsai to win with about 56% of the vote compared to Chu's 36% (or by a margin of around 2.3 million votes) while James Soong will capture the other 8%.

According to Huang, people are satisfied with the KMT's handling of cross-Strait relations but disappointed with its handling of the economy. Batto agreed that while Ma gets higher approval ratings for dealing with mainland China than for other issues such as the economy, at only around 35%, approval of cross-Strait relations are not that high.

According to Dr Ketty Chen, people want a better life and expect the ruling party to do a better job of boosting the economy and helping to create good jobs. She attributed the low birth rate in Taiwan to the fact that young people cannot afford to raise children. She added that while cross-Strait relations are important, it is not the most important factor for voters.

On the prospects for the legislative races, Batto noted that the current system gives the KMT a slight advantage when it comes to translating voting numbers into legislative seats since there are many small constituencies, which have traditionally been KMT strongholds. For this reason he estimates that the DPP would need about 52% of the votes to get an absolute majority of seats in the legislature. He believes that it is very likely that the DPP will win an outright majority this time around. Shen's predictions are even more tilted in favour of the DPP. He predicted that the DPP would win 62 seats to the KMT's 38, eight for the New Power Party and five for James Soong's People First Party.

As for how the DPP's first majority in the legislature (the party has never had a majority in the legislature before) would affect the legislature, panelists were optimistic that the next legislature would be more orderly. According to Shen, the next legislature will be peaceful because DPP legislators would behave better as the majority party and KMT legislators would not be belligerent as the official opposition. According to Huang, both major parties are in favour of legislative reform while Chen said that Tsai wants a better legislature with open communication and bipartisan support for issues such as national security, economic policy and social welfare.

On the issue of cross-Strait relations if Tsai becomes president, Shen believes that Tsai will concentrate on trying to govern with competence in order to gain a good record. While Shen thinks Tsai will not agree to the 1992 consensus during the campaign, she will probably say in her inauguration speech that she will abide by the ROC constitution and maintain agreements with the mainland made by the current administration.

On the subject of the impact of the Ma-Xi meeting, Huang was the only panelist who thought the meeting boosted the KMT's election prospects. Batto said that the meeting would have little impact. Chen suggested that the meeting would actually help the DPP because it would increase the focus of local legislative races (which are normally driven by local personalities and issues) to cross-Strait relations. According to Shen, the Ma-Xi meeting was a big mistake for the KMT because it forced Ma to change his bottom line and kowtow to Beijing. According to Shen, this only appealed to very small faction of the KMT (what he referred to as the "deep blue with tinges of red" faction), while pan-green supporters view it as a betrayal of Taiwan. Batto pointed out that opinion polls taken after the Ma-Xi meeting did not give Eric Chu any boost at all.

On the issue of economic policies and trade issues, panelists agreed that there is not much to differentiate between the KMT and the DPP. In particular, both parties support Taiwan's participation in regional trade deals, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Both parties also pay lip service to shifting away from low-cost manufacturing to innovation and moving Taiwan up the value chain and making Taiwan more competitive and friendlier to investors.