Written by T.Y. Wang.
Image credit: 中央選舉委員會/ Facebook.
Taiwan will hold its 2022 local elections on November 26. Dubbed the “9-in-1” elections, voters will select candidates in several races, including mayors of the six special municipalities, 16 county/city magistrates, council members, and heads and representatives of boroughs. Candidates of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the main opposition Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT), and smaller parties, such as the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) and the New Power Party (NPP), will participate in the elections. The electoral outcomes will have important political implications as they not only determine the fate of candidates running for more than 11,000 positions but also impact the future direction of main political parties, the viability of small parties and the playing field of the country’s 2024 presidential election.
Following past experiences, observers generally believe that the KMT should be in a strong position to enter this year’s local elections. First, the DPP suffered a disastrous setback four years ago as it only won 6 of 22 mayor and magistrate offices while the KMT took over fifteen seats. Many KMT officeholders are currently in their first term and enjoy incumbent advantages. Several cities – including traditionally KMT-leaning Taipei and Keelung – will have open posts as their current officeholders reach their term limits, and several of those incumbents are DPP-affiliated. In addition, the DPP’s mayoral candidate in Taoyuan, one of the six municipalities, was forced to withdraw from the race following allegations that the master’s theses he submitted to two universities were plagiarized. Although there are allegations against other candidates, the damage has primarily been on the DPP, as public opinion polls show.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s local elections have generally been characterized as American midterm elections and a referendum for the ruling party. As the DPP has been in power for six years, the opposition party typically will garner additional electoral support. For these reasons, KMT Chair Eric Chu has made an ambitious promise of winning 16 of the 22 mayor and magistrate races, including over half of the mayoral seats of the six municipalities.
However, the electoral dynamics are different in 2022 for several reasons. First, recall that in the months leading to the 2018 local elections, incumbent President Tsai’s job approval rating stood at a meagre 20-30%, while 70% of the island citizens disapproved of her performance. Tsai’s poor showing cast a long shadow on the electoral fate of DPP candidates, and the party subsequently suffered a devastating setback. The scenario is quite different in 2022 as Tsai’s popularity has been high during her second term, generally around 50-55%. This is partly due to the administration’s success in curbing the pandemic and maintaining a growing economy. If Tsai’s high approval rating holds until election day in November, it may help the electoral fortunate of DPP candidates in places where races are competitive. Second, while KMT leaders have attempted to rebrand the party’s image from being “China-friendly,” there has been no favourable improvement in the party’s identification among the public. The latest polls show that the proportion of DPP’s identifiers stands at 31%, which is twice as high as the KMT’s. In particular, the visit to China by a delegation led by the party’s vice chair in mid-August of 2022, when Beijing carried out unprecedented military exercises around the island, was widely criticized by many, including KMT politicians not helping the party’s image. Even though DPP candidates will face many KMT politicians with the advantages of incumbency, the KMT’s low favorability as a political party may benefit DPP candidates’ electoral prospects. Finally, the newly formed centrist TPP may be considered an alternative to the KMT by independents and moderate KMT identifiers. Such a perception may have significant implications on the electoral outcome in places such as Taipei, the country’s capital, where the race is tight.
Interestingly, two other factors are significant, but their electoral effects have yet to materialize: the China factor and the pandemic. Taiwan’s local elections are typically dominated by issues related to local development and the environment. However, Beijing’s continuing military intimidation against Taiwan in recent years, especially after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taipei and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has sensitized the public’s awareness of the threat. Recognizing voters’ anti-China sentiment, some DPP candidates have attempted to play the “China Card” to their advantage by taking a stand of “resisting China, protecting Taiwan.” Unfortunately, this campaign strategy has not been effective to date and has been overshadowed by the plagiarism scandal.
Meanwhile, the island citizens generally are satisfied with the Tsai administration’s performance in curbing the spread of COVID-19. This favourable appraisal is helpful to the DPP nominee for the Taipei mayoral election, who was the country’s health minister and was in charge of combatting the public health crisis from the beginning until this summer. However, the current surge of cases due to the new omicron variant has invited dissatisfaction among the public. Although the KMT has attempted to turn the pandemic into a campaign issue, the topic has largely been confined to Taipei’s mayoral race with negligible effect. How the pandemic will impact the electoral outcomes remains to be seen.
Due to their sizes of jurisdiction and political importance, substantial attention has been paid to the mayoral races of the six municipalities. Barring unforeseen events, each of the two major political parties is expected to win two of the six races owing to popular incumbents: the KMT is likely to win the elections of New Taipei and Taichung, while the DPP is expected to gain the seats of Tainan and Kaohsiung. All eyes now turn to the races of the two remaining municipalities: Taipei and Taoyuan, since current officeholders of the two cities are term-limited. Because Taipei is the country’s capital, the mayoral position has historically been the springboard for politicians with ambition for the presidency. Taoyuan has a KMT-leaning constituency, but races have become more competitive in recent electoral cycles. For all political parties, winning the mayoral seats of Taipei and Taoyuan would be a significant morale boost and contribute to their momentum leading up to the 2024 presidential election. The latest polls show that the three candidates for the Taipei mayoral election are running neck and neck. In contrast, the KMT candidate for the Taoyuan race appears to be in the lead partly, according to some polls, because the plagiarism scandal has negatively affected the DPP candidate’s electoral prospects.
The November elections will have an important impact on all political parties in Taiwan. For the ruling DPP, the electoral outcomes will affect the party’s faction politics and the electoral prospects of several presidential hopefuls in 2024. For the KMT, the elections will assess if the party can regain the popular support it has lost since the 2018 local elections, which will be crucial for a victory in the upcoming presidential election. Finally, for several small parties with candidates running mayoral races, the elections will determine their viability in Taiwan’s increasingly competitive political landscape. Therefore, Taiwan’s upcoming “9-in-1” local elections will have significant implications beyond 2022.
 The DPP currently holds seven mayor and magistrate offices after the KMT-affiliated Kaohsiung mayor was recalled and a DPP candidate won the by-election.
Dr T.Y. Wang is a University Professor and Department Chair of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, USA. He currently serves as the co-editor of the Journal of Asian and African Studies and is the co-editor of the Taiwan Voter (with Christopher H. Achen).
This article was published as part of a special issue on “Backstage of the upcoming mid-term election.”