- While the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered significant losses in recent local elections, the results do not necessarily signify major changes in Taiwan’s relationship with China.
- Some will now anticipate victory in 2024 for the Kuomintang (KMT), Beijing’s preferred political party in Taiwan, but we should be wary of extrapolating trends from local election results to draw conclusions at the national level.
- As events continue to unfold across the Strait, presidential campaigns in Taiwan will move to clarify and diversify the parties’ competing approaches towards Beijing to address the electorate’s concerns.
“If you have not yet decided which mayoral candidate to vote for, then I urge you to please vote for me.” These were the words of President Tsai Ing-wen in a video released in the run-up to Taiwan’s local mid-term elections on 26 November 2022. “Candidates for local elections are as important as those in presidential elections.”
While Tsai’s personal brand as the quiet yet determined pro-democracy politician standing up to China has been a key component in Taiwan’s strengthening relationships overseas, her latest appeals appeared to fall flat with Taiwanese voters at home. Last Friday, Tsai’s party – the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – suffered one of its most significant electoral defeats in over thirty years. The more China-friendly rival Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) triumphed by winning 13 of 21 seats at the mayoral and magisterial levels, while the DPP only took five. The Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), a third party growing in popularity under founder and former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, won its first mayoral seat in the influential Hsinchu City, dealing another blow to the ruling DPP.
In previous elections, the DPP has claimed victory in Taipei, Keelung, and Taoyuan, cities that have traditionally backed the KMT. However, the latest round of elections witnessed the return of these crucial regions to the blue camp. In response, President Tsai resigned as DPP Chair to accept responsibility for her party’s significant electoral losses, a gesture also made by former president Ma Ying-jeou following disastrous local election results for the KMT in 2014.
All this has taken place against a backdrop of escalating tensions with Beijing following the results of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 20th Congress in October which tightened Xi Jinping’s grip on power and enshrined opposition to Taiwanese independence in the Party Constitution for the first time. Only a few months prior, the People’s Liberation Army carried out the most extensive military exercises seen by Taiwan in decades, including a simulated blockade of the island. Around the same period, the Chinese leadership published a white paper on unification with Taiwan which put more emphasis on economically and institutionally integrating the island, according to expert Wen-ti Sung. Many therefore cannot help but wonder how the November local elections will affect Taiwan’s future.
In an effort to address this looming uncertainty, international news outlets have been quick to hammer home the major losses suffered by the incumbent administration while focusing disproportionately on the success of KMT candidate and great grandson of Chiang Kai-shek Chiang Wan-an in the Taipei mayoral race. A relatively young member of the KMT, the 43-year-old Chiang is already being primed as the new blood that could reinvigorate the party’s status among Taiwanese voters with a more “moderate” approach toward China.
However, there is little substantial evidence of Chiang’s supposed views or approach toward Beijing. The newly elected mayor does not have much of a track record compared to other candidates since he worked as a corporate lawyer in the US for many years before returning to Taiwan to launch his political career.
The fixation on Chiang Wan-an and Taipei is seemingly fuelled by the belief the capital’s mayoral race will serve as an indicator of Taiwan’s upcoming presidential elections in 2024. This has led some analysts to anticipate victory in 2024 for the KMT, Beijing’s preferred political party in Taiwan, which could usher in a new stage of cross-Strait engagement. Unsurprisingly, the CCP is all too eager to advance this interpretation. The Taiwan Affairs Office, China’s department overseeing relations with Taiwan, released a press statement claiming the election results “revealed that mainstream public opinion in the island is for peace, stability and a good life”.
However, we should be wary of extrapolating trends from local election results to draw conclusions at the national level. As expert Brian Hioe points out, a KMT victory in the Taipei mayoral race does not necessarily signify a national sway toward the pro-China camp, but rather may just be the “longstanding status quo in Taipei reasserting itself.”
The DPP’s defeat at the ballot box is also not wholly surprising for a ruling party approaching the end of its second term. After all, the results of the 2014 nine-in-one elections were also described as a “political earthquake” and an “unprecedented setback” for the KMT. Though the KMT went on to lose the presidential election that followed in 2016, the DPP still has the potential to draw lessons from its failures in these local elections and improve its campaigning strategies for 2024.
One important lesson is that while the DPP’s communications strategy of “resisting China to protect Taiwan” (抗中保台 di zhong bao tai) won the electorate over in previous national elections, this messaging missed the mark in local elections. This is in part due to voters prioritising local concerns such as public transportation systems, government subsidies and infrastructure projects over geopolitical issues. As Courtney Donovan Smith aptly put it: “Taiwan’s local elections are just that: Local.” Smith also points out that despite the DPP’s potential to adapt its “resisting China to protect Taiwan” campaign strategy at the national level to more effectively appeal to local concerns, the party failed to articulate this in the November elections.
However, for the time being, the election results do not signify major changes in Taiwan’s relationship with China. Cross-Strait relations, while only one of several factors that influence Taiwanese electorate, will rank more highly on the list of voter concerns during national elections. And as events continue to unfold across the Strait, presidential campaigns in Taiwan will move to clarify and diversify the parties’ competing approaches towards Beijing to address the electorate’s concerns.
These policy differences will also likely depend on how the new leadership in Beijing implements its strategy towards Taiwan in the coming months. Breaking from previous election seasons in Taiwan, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu noted there was less interference from Beijing this time perhaps due to recent protests in China over the government’s zero-COVID policy. Domestic issues may therefore hamper the CCP’s capacity to advance its ambitions of unification with Taiwan. Only time will tell.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.
The blog image is “Tsai Ing-wen 2016: Taiwan faces the future” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).