Written by Mei-chuan Wei.
Image credit: 蔡英文/Facebook.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (the DPP) was defeated by the main opposition, the Kuomintang party (the KMT), in Taiwan’s 2022 local elections held on November 26. All DPP candidates in the cities and counties located in the north and east of the island lost, with the KMT winning most of them. The campaigns of the two main parties focused on ‘Ditching the DPP (下架民進黨，xiajia minjindang)’ and ‘Resisting China and Preserving Taiwan (抗中保臺，kangzhong baotai)’ respectively. Whilst the ruling DPP tried to take advantage of the increasing aggression of China towards Taiwan and emphasise the reliability of the party being the protector of Taiwan, the KMT drew public attention to the misconduct of the DPP’s candidates and the ruling DPP’s neglect of the needs of the people.
The election results led many to conclude that Taiwan voters are more concerned about the ruling DPP’s inability to deliver on its promise to create a more just society and less worried about situations in the Taiwan Straits. However, this is misleading if we consider the results of local councils. The seats of local councillors of DPP have increased, while the KMTs have decreased. How, then to interpret the signals sent by the voters as embodied in the election results from the perspective of democracy in Taiwan?
‘Ditching the DPP’ – local elections as the mid-term elections
Cross-Straits and national security have never been the focus of campaigns in local elections in Taiwan; the results of this year’s local elections have just proved this once again. The KMT’s decision not to focus its campaign on cross-Straits or national security-related issues is readily understood because it has been regarded as the standard bearer of the ‘pro-unification’ position on cross-Strait relations. Against China’s increasingly aggressive actions against Taiwan, it would be more sensible for the KMT not to damage itself by focusing the campaign on any issue relating to cross-Strait relations. Drawing attention to the performance of the DPP government, which has been in power for about six years, is a much wiser decision, especially when most people’s lives have been negatively and badly affected by both the pandemic and inflation.
The effect of the KMT’s ‘Ditching the DPP’ campaign is very similar to that of the ‘Han Wave’ created by the KMT politician Han Kuo-yu in the 2018 local elections. Taiwan’s economy has not been hit too badly by the pandemic thanks to the strong demand for digital devices caused by the measures of ‘work from home’ in major countries to prevent massive transmission of COVID-19 and its strength and advantage in manufacturing electronic goods in need. Yet employees in most sectors of Taiwan’s economy – especially the service industry, in particular hospitalities, restaurants, and tourism – have been laid off as a result. These people feel the negative impact of the pandemic directly and strongly. Inflation is another factor that has made what is bad worse in the context when the consumer price has skyrocketed due to the increase of production cost, and yet the wage remains largely the same for many employees. Even where there has been wage growth, it has been eaten up by inflation.
In addition to the socio-economic situation – a situation created primarily due to the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – is unfavourable for the ruling DPP. Indeed, the DPP government has made very limited, if not no progress, in curbing the housing price in urban areas, especially Taipei City, or increasing the provision of more affordable housing in these areas. These factors also contributed to the general public’s dissatisfaction with the DPP government’s performance. In this sense, local elections in Taiwan have become similar to the mid-term elections in the United States, with the election results being the verdict reached by the general public on the overall performance of the central government.
‘Resisting China and Preserving Taiwan’ – playing the ‘national security card’ in local elections
In local elections, national security issues seldom are central to campaigns. The question then is why the DPP had decided to play the ‘national security card’ by setting ‘Resisting China and Preserving Taiwan’ as the theme of its campaign? The answer is found by considering the external context of the elections. Specifically, the factors of geopolitics and regional security involve the competition between the two great powers of the United States and China and Taiwan’s strategic location on the first island chain for curbing China’s expansion and aggression. Equally, if not more important, is Taiwan’s role in manufacturing semiconductors/ chips against the background of global chain realignment.
The DPP does, of course, know that national security has rarely been the theme of local elections campaigns. The ‘unusual’ decision of the DPP strategists to focus the campaign on national security issues and China’s threat to Taiwan in local elections thus requires explanations. One explanation could be that from the pre-election polls, the DPP, a party more popular with and supported by the young population than the KMT, had known that it had been losing the popularity and support of younger people. Moreover, past experiences, such as the effects of the 2014 Sunflower Movement for the 2016 presidential election, and that of the 2019 anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement in Hong Kong in the 2020 presidential election, have shown that appealing to national security with an emphasis on preserving the liberal democratic system in Taiwan could rally support in elections.
The other possible explanation of why the DPP decided to set ‘Resisting China and Preserving Taiwan’ as the theme of its campaign in the local elections has much to do with the party’s strategy of shifting the focus of the ‘attacks’ waged by its competitors, especially the KMT. These attacks target the alleged scandals involving the procurement of COVID vaccines. In addition, the ‘an eye for an eye’ strategy of the DPP is a response to the KMT’s negative campaign dubbed the ‘Dissertation Gate’ and the DPP’s cancellation of primary elections in selecting candidates for mayoral and magisterial elections. In short, the DPP might just have wanted to try its luck in playing the national security card when it found that it was facing a formidable situation in defending itself from criticisms about its performance on domestic issues.
Implications of the election results for democracy in Taiwan
In a way, the KMT’s campaign of ‘Ditching the DPP’ and the DPP’s ‘Resisting China and Preserving Taiwan’ can be seen as involving two different and equally important dimensions of democracy — ‘quality of democracy’ and ‘survival of democracy,’ respectively. It would run the risk of misinterpreting the defeat of the DPP in the mayoral and magisterial election to the KMT as the choice of the Taiwanese people for unification as represented by the pro-unification Pan-Blue Camp led by the KMT. The voters did not give up on the DPP altogether and/or withdraw their support for the stance on the cross-Straits issue the party stands for. If that were the case, the seats of local councillors won by the DPP would not have increased. Whether or not the account I have offered is correct will be seen when the people of Taiwan make their choice in the 2024 presidential election. The point to be made here is that the fact that the general support for the DPP remains (as demonstrated in the results of the election of councils) shows the importance of ‘resisting China,’ specifically China’s aggression, and ‘preserving Taiwan,’ without which the freedom and democracy enjoyed by the people will vanish.
The victory of the KMT with its ‘Ditching the DPP’ campaign can be seen as showing the people’s care and concern about the quality of democratic governance in Taiwan. As discussed above, the decision of the KMT to focus its campaign on criticising the DPP’s performance, especially its failure to deliver what it promised in creating a fairer and more just society and more equitable economy, has much to do with the following fact. On the one hand, the KMT has sensed the discontent of the people; on the other, it would not be advantageous to focus its campaign on any issues relating to cross-Strait relations given the general context of ‘containing China.’ The victory of the KMT in the 2022 local elections is far from a landslide. That is the reason why the party as a whole was not overwhelmed by the results. Yet its victory still shows the concern of the people in Taiwan about the quality of democratic governance. However, the low turnout of the 2022 elections, when compared to previous local elections, may signal people’s disillusion or disenchantment with the democratic practice in Taiwan dominated by the two main parties.
Mei-Chuan Wei is an Associate Professor at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, College of Social Sciences at National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan.
This article was published as part of a special issue on “2022 Local Elections.”