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Taiwan Elections Seen as a Warning to Ruling Party

Supporters of Taiwan Kuomintang party Taipei city mayoral candidate Wayne Chiang cheer in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 26, 2022.
Supporters of Taiwan Kuomintang party Taipei city mayoral candidate Wayne Chiang cheer in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 26, 2022.

The defeat suffered by Taiwan's pro-independence ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Saturday's local elections is seen as a warning to President Tsai Ing-wen and her party that voters are not happy with their governance on local issues.

Analysts, though, say it is too soon to tell what consequences the loss will have on the presidential race in January 2024 and on relations with mainland China, which wants to reunify with the self-ruled island one day.

The party, which had lost half of the cities and counties it had held in the 2018 local elections, shed two more this time, including Taoyuan City, one of the six biggest municipalities. It now controls only five of Taiwan's 21 cities and counties.

The main opposition party, the Kuomintang, which has long worked to reduce tensions with Beijing, won 13 cities and counties, including retaking control of the capital, Taipei. The party now controls four of Taiwan's six municipalities, where 70% of the population lives.

China's Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson, Zhu Fenglian, issued a statement Sunday saying the election results reflect "mainstream public opinion on the island of 'seeking peace, stability, and a better life.'"

But voters, analysts and party insiders say people were more concerned about local issues and candidates than cross-Taiwan Strait relations, despite significantly heightened tensions in recent months following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's controversial visit to Taiwan in August.

"All politics is local. This is a local election. People would primarily look at the domestic political environment, economy, the vaccine policy, and the use of taxpayers' money in dealing with the pandemic," said Alexander Huang, director of the KMT's International Affairs Department and a political science professor at Taiwan's Tamkang University.

He believes his party won so many seats because it chose good candidates with a proven record.

"The personality [of the candidates] was also an issue. There was plagiarism involved in DPP candidates, there was unclear government budget use and the vaccine (procurement) policy was pretty opaque. I think it's a combination of several domestic policies that really made Taiwanese people uncomfortable," Huang said.

Voter turnout was lower than usual - at just below 60%.

Even older, longtime DPP supporters didn't bother going to the polls, said Caroline Teh, who voted for the party's candidate in Taoyuan City.

"Many of my friends didn't come out to vote. There was internal chaos in the DPP. Power is not distributed well. Tsai Ing-wen didn't hold a party primary to select candidates, she selected whoever she wanted … so [DPP supporters] wanted to make her look bad," said Teh.

Young people, typically strong supporters of the DPP, are widely believed to have stayed home, given that a referendum promoted by the DPP to lower the voting age from 20 to 18 failed.

"Taiwan's sovereignty was not an issue in this election, so young people didn't feel motivated to vote," said Simon Chen, a political science professor at National Taiwan University.

There was also a widespread belief that too much power was concentrated in the hands of the DPP, which controls the presidency and has a majority in the legislature.

"Voters feel they shouldn't put all power in one party, that they should distribute power to create balance," Chen said.

But he added: "I don't think that just because the DPP lost this election, two years later it will lose [the presidential race]. They're different kinds of elections."

Taiwan's elections are like a pendulum, swinging from one party to the other, he said. It swung to the DPP in 2000 and 2004, the KMT in 2008 and 2012, and the DPP in 2016 and 2020.

After losing the midterm elections in 2018, Tsai still managed to win the 2020 presidential race in a landslide.

In past elections, the DPP, especially under Tsai in 2020, has campaigned on the message that the party is the best guardian of Taiwan's independence and on fear that Taiwan could become the next Hong Kong. More recently, its officials have raised fears of an imminent attack by China and that Taiwan could become the next Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden, however, said he did not think Beijing was planning an imminent attack on the island, after a recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

With polls showing DPP candidates trailing behind their opponents in the run-up to Saturday's elections, President Tsai urged voters to vote for her party to protect Taiwan from Beijing.

That strategy clearly didn't work this time, but it's not to say it won't work in the next 14 months leading up to the presidential race, especially if Beijing takes actions that raise fear, as had happened in the 2020 election, helping Tsai get reelected, observers said.

Speaking to her party after the election, Tsai said it was not the first time the party has suffered defeat.

"The DPP would engage in solemn introspection and aspire to do a better job to meet people's high expectations," she said, while announcing her resignation as party leader to take responsibility for the election defeat.

Leo Chou, a Taoyuan resident who voted for the KMT candidate, expects the DPP to ratchet up the anti-China rhetoric in coming months.

"If the KMT wins, it can talk with Beijing, then there would be no need for the DPP, so the DPP needs to constantly raise fear about China," Chou said.

To win the presidential race, the KMT can't afford to rest on its victory. Seen as being friendly toward China, it will have to gain people's trust that it will not lead Taiwan toward unification.

Huang indicated the KMT will try to prove to voters that it too can protect Taiwan's sovereignty and independence, without antagonizing China.

"An anti-China, confrontational strategy against China without a communications channel may lead to even more crises in the future," Huang said.

The DPP has blamed Beijing for the current tensions and has said it was open to dialogue, but only without preconditions. It also believes it's Taiwan's right to welcome Pelosi and establish closer ties with Washington - moves Beijing sees as violating decades-old Sino-U.S. agreements.

DPP supporters like Teh say they will still vote for the party in central government-level elections.

"They did a good job controlling COVID on the whole and inflation in Taiwan hasn't been that high compared to other countries," she said.

China, meanwhile, may have to do more if it wants Taiwanese voters to vote for the KMT, instead of the DPP, starting by treating its own citizens better.

China's spokesperson Zhu said Beijing "will continue to unite with Taiwan compatriots, jointly promote the peaceful and integrated development of cross-strait relations" for the well-being of people on both sides.

That fell on deaf ears to people like Teh, who is further convinced the two sides should never reunify after watching videos posted by mainland people in COVID lockdown.

"Don't misunderstand the elections. Who would want to unify with it? … Our systems are not the same at all. They tell you to stay home and you must stay home, and if you come out, they hit you. Do we want to live like that?" asked Teh.