Likely Impact of Local Elections’ Outcome in Taiwan on DPP’s Presidential Elections Prospects in 2024
Prof Rajaram Panda

Most of the recent writings on Taiwan have focussed on President Tsai Ing-wen of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) and her defiance on China’s pressure to toe Beijing’s line on Taiwan’s status. The frequent threats from Beijing to use force against Taiwan which is viewed as a renegade province and thus needs to be annexed by force if necessary is the most dreaded topic of the region emerging as a potential flashpoint. The US is most likely to respond militarily if Beijing becomes adventurous. Against the lurking threat from Beijing, the opposition with its perceived soft pedalling towards Beijing was a mute spectator to this evolving situation.

There is a sudden turnaround in this situation. When most people thought the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) to be dead, it came roaring back when it swept across Taiwan with a landslide victory in the local elections held on 26 November 2022 covering six municipalities, 22 cities and counties with more than 11,000 local government posts up for grabs. The KMT won 13 of the 21 seats, including the wealthy and cosmopolitan capital of Taipei. It is also expected to win the election for the mayor of Chiayi City, which was postponed until December because a candidate unexpectedly died during the campaign. DPP won only five, two going to independents, and one to the Taiwan People’s Party.

The issues in focus were local and livelihood issues and President Tsai’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Does it mean that people did not take seriously the “China threat” while exercising their franchise? The first reaction to the election outcome could suggest such was the case. The truism however is the answer could be both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ as geopolitics is a complicated issue and the common man need not necessarily be factoring this aspect while exercising his/her franchise. As it transpired, none of those elected had a direct say in policies on China.

This landslide victory by the KMT is bad news for the island’s secessionists and Washington’s professional troublemakers. But if it is good news for cross-strait and regional stability and possibly world peace remains to be seen when and if the local election results shall have any bearing on the presidential elections to be held in January 2024.

The ruling DPP’s President Tsai had framed the local elections as showcasing her defiance to China’s bellicosity but as it transpired the elections were ostensibly about domestic issue such as Covid-19 pandemic and crime and those elected seem to have little interest in defiance to China’s bellicosity.[1] Tsai thought the elections were more than a local vote as she believed that the world was more interested in seeing how Taiwan is defending its democracy amid military tensions with China, which claims the island as its territory. The elections outcome proved to be otherwise.

When US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, China responded with war games near Taiwan in August. Military activities have continued at a reduced scale since then but tensions remain. The election took place a month after the 20th congress of China's Communist Party, where President Xi Jinping secured an unprecedented third term in office. Though Tsai made this as an issue during the campaign, it did not help her cause.

After the DPP’s thrashing and Tsai’s China strategy backfired, attention has now turned to 2024 presidential elections. The KMT traditionally favours close ties with China but strongly denies being pro-Beijing. The KMT remained demoralised since its loss in 2020 presidential elections and setback in December 2021 referendums that it championed as a show of no-confidence in Tsai government. The elections outcome is therefore is like a resurrection of KMT’s fortunes.

In a quick response to the losses in the local elections, President Tsai Ing-wen announced her resignation as head of the ruling DPP.[2] Tsai had raised the China card vociferously but her party candidate Chen Shih-chung who lost his battle for mayor in Taipei only raised the issue of threat from China but was late in focussing on local issues. That proved to be his undoing at the election.

Though Tsai and her DPP linked the elections to the long-term existential threat looming from China, many local experts thought otherwise. They felt that raising a local election to the international level was Tsai’s flawed strategy. This led to KMT candidates win smoothly in Taipei, Taoyuan, Taichung and New Taipei city. Chiang Wan-an, the new Taipei mayor was euphoric seeking to work for Taipei’s greatness.[3] The critical issues raised, for example in Taichung were air pollution, traffic snarls in Taipei’s tech hub Nangang, and the island’s Covid-19 vaccine purchasing strategies, which left the island in short supply during the outbreak of the pandemic. Though the outside world applauded Taiwan’s pandemic prevention measures, dissatisfaction of the people with the DPP on the way the pandemic was handled remained.

Here onwards, Tsai shall walk on a tight rope. This being the worst showing in the party’s history, the DPP is now left with just five mayor or county chief positions. The election outcome transpired that Tsai’s election strategy backfired as the voters disassociated geopolitics from the local elections. The turnout was at record low, just 59 per cent for Taiwan’s six most important cities, compared to an overall figure of around 75 per cent in 2020. [4] Interestingly, far from what was feared, Beijing was not seen to have interfered in Taiwan’s local elections because of two possible reasons: its preoccupation with domestic problems over unrest surrounding its zero-Covid-19 policy and its efforts to improve its international image.

Taiwan's pro-DPP Liberty Times observed in an editorial that it was tougher to motivate voters at local elections using "abstract political ideas", and warned the DPP could face distracting splits in deciding its 2024 presidential candidate. It was dismayed that since Tsai’s second term is halfway through, the issue of succession may breed internal contradictions. Taiwan’s constitution limits Tsai’s terms to two. The election result is likely to weaken her authority within the DPP to shape its 2024 presidential campaign and manage the party’s factions.[5] The chances of the present Vice President William considered the most likely candidate for the 2024 presidential election could be tough now unless Beijing does something adventurous that can sway public opinion in favour of the DPP. The DPP might draw some solace from its experience from the 2018 local elections when it was trounced but won a landslide at the presidential and parliamentary polls in 2020 when it successfully sold the idea to the people that a vote for the KMT would mean a vote for China. This was possible as the polls were held in the wake of a bloody crackdown on anti-government protestors in Hong Kong. Viewed differently, Beijing would not be missing to evaluating this factor in its Taiwan strategy, at least till 2024 presidential elections.

For now, Beijing would continue to see Tsai as a separatist. This does not mean that KMT’s landslide victory is going to shape a pro-Beijing political atmosphere in Taiwan as the KMT is just not a pro-Beijing party. For now, both Beijing and Washington would wait to see how the polls outcome would play out indirectly in cross-strait affairs. Though Beijing might rejoice in KMT’s success, it need not necessarily translate into KMT’s success in the 2024 presidential election.[6] The KMT therefore need not be euphoric about its chances in the 2024 presidential race. Alex Lo, executive director of the Taipei-based Taiwan International Strategic Study Society, argues that Tsai was increasingly becoming a lame duck and it was unlikely she would adopt a drastic cross-strait policy to counter Beijing. He feels that Taiwan needs to play a more neutral role in the Beijing-Washington rivalry as Beijing is unlikely to actually invade. Lo argues that Tsai’s biggest mistake was to turn the island into a “strategic outpost for Washington”.[7]

Though the KMT is unlikely to embrace the mainland China, it would be more cautious about even overtly taking a pro-US position in order not to irk Beijing. On its part, Beijing would want the KMT to return to power in 2024 rather than to see a victory for the pro-independence DPP. [8] On the other hand, Tsai got cosy with Washington to and played the Taiwan card in the US-China rivalry. By taking such a position, Tsai is now being accused of turning the Taiwan Strait into perhaps the most dangerous flashpoint in the region. With the defeat in the local elections, Tsai is likely to remain a lame duck president and soften her strong anti-China stance. She would be walking a tight rope during the remainder of her term. For now, the likely position of the KMT is likely to stay close with the US, maintain friendly terms with Japan and continue engagement with China.

After the polls debacle, Tsai is likely to focus more on factional matters rather than national security during the remainder of his term. This does not mean to suggest that she would be offering an olive branch or making concessions to China as such gestures would be seen as a weakness on her part. With her authority seen to have weakened a bit, any soft pedalling towards Beijing as a damage control measure would not only be seen as weakening her authority but would also enrage Washington. So, that is an unlikely option. Tsai’s international legacy as a consequential president of Taiwan is assured. But since the electorate was unforgiving, that might remain short-lived unless Beijing goes overboard and adopts military measures to annex the island.

This brings us back to the question: Will China and the US go to war over Taiwan? Though Xi prefers reunification by peaceful means, his belligerent statement at the 20th Party Congress reserving the right to the use of force keeps the strategic dynamics in the Taiwan Straits fragile. In the past the US has persuaded Taiwan from officially declaring independence and urged China not to use force against Taiwan. But given the increased Chinese military capabilities in recent times, China might feel emboldened not to abjure using force to integrate the island with the mainland. The question however remains unclear if the US position on ‘One China’ policy remains in China’s perception. [9]

Beijing’s suspicion on Washington’s position is hardened after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. So far, there is strategic ambiguity in the US policy towards Taiwan. The US is unlikely to eliminate this ambiguity so as not to be seen as aligning openly with the nationalist forces in Taiwan, thereby not provoke Beijing into an open confrontation. The forthcoming presidential election in Taiwan in January 2024 needs to be watched closely against this background.

Endnotes :

[1] “Taiwan opposition wins control of Taipei in setback for President Tsai”, 26 November 2022, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/taiwan-opposition-kmt-wins-control-taipei-setback-president-tsai-ing-wen-3102851
[2] “Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen resigns as head of ruling Democratic Progressive Party following local election losses”, 26 November 2022, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/taiwan-president-tsai-ing-wen-resigns-head-ruling-democratic-progressive-party-following-local-election-losses-3102961
[3]Chiang Wan-an is believed to be the illegitimate great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek. His grandmother, Chang Yaruo, had an affair with Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek’s son and later president of Taiwan, and in 1942 gave birth to twin boys, Hsiao-chi and Hsiao-yen, who is Chiang Wan-an’s father.
[4] “Attention turns to 2024 presidential poll after Taiwan ruling party thrashing”, 27 November 2022, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/taiwan-elections-tsai-ing-wen-kuomintang-dpp-3103656
[5]Mark Harrison, “ The real significance of Taiwan’s ‘9-in-1’ elections”, 8 December 2022, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-real-significance-of-taiwans-9-in-1-elections/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Weekly%20The%20Strategist&utm_content=Weekly%20The%20Strategi
[6] Lawrence Chung, “Taiwan elections: what do KMT’s gains mean for the 2024 presidential race?”, 27 November 2022, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3201174/taiwan-elections-what-do-kmts-gains-mean-2024-presidential-race?utm_medium=email&utm_source=cm&utm_campaign=
[7]Alex Lo, “KMT local election landslide is good news for regional peace”, 27 November 2022, https://www.scmp.com/comment/article/3201185/kmt-local-election-landslide-good-news-regional-peace?utm_medium=email&utm_source=cm&utm_campaign=enlz-opinion&utm_conte
[8]Lawrence Chung, “Taiwan elections: what do KMT’s gains mean for the 2024 presidential race?”, 27 November 2022, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3201174/taiwan-elections-what-do-kmts-gains-mean-2024-presidential-race?utm_medium=email&utm_source=cm&utm_campaign=
[9]Joseph S. Nye, “Buying time to avoid war over Taiwan”, 5 December 2022, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/buying-time-to-avoid-war-over-taiwan/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Weekly%20The%20Strategist&utm_content=Weekly%20The%20Strategist+CID_d

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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