Taiwan‘s President Tsai Ing-wen has quit as leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after it suffered major defeats in key local polls, a significant blow to her prospects for re-election in 2020.
The resignation on Saturday came as the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, seen as being close to China, made gains by winning two of the island’s most important city posts in mayoral elections.
The local elections were seen as a referendum on the administration of the island’s independence-leaning president amid growing economic and political pressure from Beijing.
Tsai will remain president and her resignation from the party leadership will have no direct effect on the business of the government.
“Today, democracy taught us a lesson,” Tsai said. “We must study and accept the higher expectations of the people.”
Setback ahead of 2020 election
The DPP lost the mayoral election to KMT in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, where it held power for 20 years.
KMT also defeated the ruling party in the central city of Taichung, while Ko Wen-je, the independent mayor of the capital, Taipei, appeared on track to win a second term.
The DPP is left in control of only six of Taiwan’s 22 cities and counties, compared with at least 15 for the Kuomintang.
Analysts said the defeat ruled Tsai out as a candidate for the presidency in the 2020 election. But others said she may still run, in the absence of an obvious successor.
Observers put the results down to anger over pension cuts and labour reforms, including slashing the number of public holidays, as well as concern that tensions with Beijing are damaging local businesses.
“The defeat certainly harms Tsai’s chances in 2020,” said Shih Cheng-feng, a political analyst at Taiwan’s National Dong Hwa University.
The DPP is traditionally pro-independence and Tsai has refused to acknowledge Beijing’s stance that Taiwan is part of “one China”.
|Supporters of nationalist opposition, Kuomintang (KMT), celebrate after the results [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]|
“What really upsets them [Beijing] is her refusal to back the ‘one China’ policy,” Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Taipei, said.
Tsai and her DPP won a landslide victory in 2016, but China swiftly responded by cutting all links with her government.
Beijing has been ratcheting up pressure on the island it claims as its own territory by poaching away its diplomatic partners, cutting official contacts and staging threatening military exercises.
But J Bruce Jacobs, professor emeritus of Asian languages and studies at Monash University, said the election had little to do with China.
The election was the result of “young people and older people voting to improve the economy”, Jacobs said on Al Jazeera.
“It was also a report card on the central government” which tended to be “rather cautious”, he said. “To some extent, it led to a paralysis,” Jacobs said.
Taiwanese officials had warned that Beijing was seeking to sway voters through the spread of fake news, similar to how Russia was accused of interfering in the 2016 US presidential elections.
There was no immediate reaction from Beijing to the poll results, with state media simply noting Tsai’s resignation “to take responsibility for the party’s performance in Taiwan’s local elections”.
Al Jazeera and news agencies