Taiwan’s mid-term elections: Most politics is local, the KMT remains a force to be reckoned with, and the DPP needs to regroup

Written by Gerrit van der Wees.

Image credit: 蔣萬安/ Facebook.

On Saturday, November 26 2022, Taiwan held its “nine-in-one” mid-term elections for nine levels of local offices ranging from mayors and county magistrates in 22 cities and counties down to village-level councils. 

A total of 19.2 million Taiwanese citizens were eligible to vote, with candidates running for some 11,000 positions, from city and county councillors down to borough and neighbourhood chiefs. The overall turnout was 59.6 %, which is still quite high for an off-year election but much lower than the 75% level achieved during general elections.

City Mayor and County Magistrate elections

The main indicator of how well the parties did, was the number of city mayor and county magistrate positions they gained or lost: the ruling DPP went down from their current number of seven positions to five, while the opposition KMT went down from their current number of 14 to 13, with two of the remaining seats going to independents, and one, Hsinchu City, to the Taiwan People’s Party of Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je. In one location, Chiayi City, the election had to be postponed until December 18 because of the death of a mayoral candidate.

This result is generally seen as a strong win for the KMT party, as the party won Taipei City, as well as New Taipei City (formerly Taipei County) and two key cities that had previously been governed by the DPP, Taoyuan and Keelung.    

Most attention was focused on the capital city, Taipei, where three candidates ran a hotly-contested race: former health minister Chen Shi-chung for the DPP, ran against Chiang Kai-shek’s great-grandson Chiang Wan-an for the KMT, and “Vivian” Huang Shan-shan, an independent who current mayor Ko Wen-je supported. The winner was Mr Chiang of the KMT, meaning the capital city would return to Kuomintang rule after eight years under independent Ko Wen-je.

But the Kuomintang also did well in New Taipei City, where incumbent county magistrate Hou Yu-ih beat out veteran DPP politician Lin Chia-lung with 62.4% versus 37.6%. In most other races – such as Taichung, Hsinchu County, Yilan, Hualien, Taitung, Nantou, Changhua and Yunlin – the KMT was able to run incumbents who were first elected in the “blue wave” upset victory in 2018. These easily coasted to victory, as in Taiwan, incumbents generally have an easy time getting reelected.

A factor hampering the DPP this time around was that several of their most prominent and successful current office holders – in particular Cheng Wen-tsan in Taoyuan and Lin Yu-chang in Keelung – had run into the end of their two-term limit, so the DPP had to run new and less experienced candidates. These lost to their KMT opponents with a 10-12% margin, with 39-40% against 52-53% of the vote.

The DPP did well in their traditional strongholds in the South, winning Chiayi County, Tainan, Kaohsiung and Pingtung. The DPP also won a close three-way race in the Pescadores (Penghu), where DPP candidate Chen Kuang-fu could win for the first time, marking the first time that the DPP had won in the island county.

The DPP also somewhat improved its standings, both in vote and seat shares, in the city council elections, including in Taipei City, New Taipei City and Taoyuan City, which – going forward — will mean an important balancing force on the KMT-elected mayors in those localities. One prominent new DPP political star is former diplomat Vincent Chao, who left Taiwan’s foreign service last year to run for a seat in the Taipei City Council.

In a brief speech on Saturday evening, President Tsai resigned as DPP Chairperson and acknowledged the ballot-box losses, blaming shortcomings in the Democratic Progressive Party’s approach to local politics. “There is still a gap between people’s expectations and our grassroot work,” she said. She will retain her position as President until the end of her term in May 2024.

Independent candidates won in Miaoli County and Kinmen County, while Ms. “Ann” Kao Hung-an of Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je’s Taiwan People’s Party won in Hsinchu City with 45% of the vote against 35.7% for her DPP opponent, with the remainder going to minor candidates.

Referendum on lower voting age doesn’t reach the threshold

The elections also involved a referendum for a Constitutional Amendment to lower the voting age from 20 down to 18 years. According to the legal procedures, the proposal had been approved by the Legislative Yuan earlier this year with the support of both the DPP and Kuomintang and now needed to be validated through a popular vote with at least 50% of the registered voters in favour.

This proved too high a hurdle: while a majority of some 52.9% of the valid votes were in favour, the measure still didn’t pass because it didn’t reach the 50% registered voter threshold. Apparently, within the KMT, there was still a strong undercurrent against the measure, as some 47.1% voted against it.

What implications for the 2024 elections?

As these are obviously local elections, they are definitively not an indicator of the respective parties’ positions in the national elections in early 2024. However, the current elections were primarily driven by the fact that at the local level, the Kuomintang still has strong patronage networks and administrative experience in dealing with local issues starkly contrasts to presidential and national legislative elections, in which China-Taiwan relations and national security are prominent issues.

The Kuomintang can still dominate local elections because they built up their local party machinery over many decades of rule. But over the past eight years – basically, since the Sunflower movement and the 2014 elections – the Kuomintang has not been able to translate that local power into national-level dominance, while on the other hand, the DPP was not able to translate its national-level dominance to the local level where local patronage and issues prevail.

According to Taiwan-based observer Courtney Donovan Smith, this is mainly due to what he refers to as “conservative, safe bet” voters. These voters vote for KMT candidates in local elections as the safe bet, based on the assumption they will be better administrators (generally, the party promotes bottom-up, local positions). However, the vote for the DPP in national elections is the safe bet because these voters view them as more trustworthy and reliable on national security and in managing the China threat.

The KMT emboldened, the DPP regrouping

So, do these elections have implications for the run-up to 2024? Certainly, the Kuomintang will feel emboldened and re-energized, but at the same time, it could spell out the beginning of an internal power struggle for the leadership of the party: the current results are a definite plus for party chairman Eric Chu, who, until now had not been able to show too many accomplishments. But the strong showing of incumbent county magistrate Hou Yu-ih in New Taipei City may prompt him to challenge Chu, while newly elected Taipei City mayor Chiang Wan-an may also want to capitalize on his win.

But the DPP will also regroup and gear up for 2024. The current election results are by no means an indicator of the level of popular support for the Tsai administration at the national level. Rather, it is a measure of dissatisfaction with the DPP’s performance on local interests and issues. The adage “all politics is local” is strongly prevalent in Taiwan.

One of the factors mentioned by several local observers was that although the DPP did an excellent job in positioning Taiwan against China, and garnering international support for Taiwan on many fronts, particularly in the United States and Europe, this did not translate into improvement in the well-being of the average citizen on bread-and-butter issues.

In particular, the Covid crisis played havoc with the local economy. The Tsai administration – led ably by health minister Chen Shih-chung – did an excellent job, certainly during the first year, in protecting the Taiwanese population from the Covid onslaught. As a result, while most other economies stagnated during this time, Taiwan’s economy still grew at an admirable rate of 3.4% in 2020 and 6.6% in 2021. But in the perception of several local observers, the DPP government did not do enough to assist small businesses to withstand the economic consequences, resulting in many restaurants and other small family operations closing down.

How will relations with China fare?

A major question always hanging in the background is how these elections will impact relations with China. In these elections, Cross-Strait relations played a role to some extent, with the DPP emphasizing the China threats and intimidations with the “resist China, protect Taiwan” (抗中保台) campaign, while the KMT was emphasizing that it is better positioned to manage relations with China, and implying that supporting the DPP would mean war: “if you don’t want war, vote Kuomintang”.

While the Kuomintang has traditionally advocated more rapprochement with China, in practice, it has insisted on the “ROC status quo”, while opposing moves towards de jure independence. 

But any move toward more accommodation with China at the expense of Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty – as happened during the Ma Ying-jeou administration (2008-2016) – would cost it support among the Taiwanese segment of its powerbase, and in particular young people, who are generally much more “Taiwan-conscious” than the older generation mainlanders, who still make up a majority of the leadership of the party. This ambiguous “rapprochement-but-not- too-much” position is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain as Beijing builds up pressure in the Taiwan Strait with aggressive military manoeuvres and rhetoric.

Thus, in the run-up to the 2024 presidential and legislative elections, Beijing will maintain its harsh stance against the DPP government, but also try to work with local KMT officials in a divide-and-rule effort to soften opposition to its efforts to annex and incorporate Taiwan. However, the overwhelming majority of people in Taiwan want to retain the status quo of democracy, freedom and de facto independence, which still gives the DPP of President Tsai Ing-wen the best cards for 2024.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat who teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and US relations with East Asia at the George Washington University Elliott School for International Affairs in Washington, DC.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “2022 Local Elections.”

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