By Kamal Madishetty*
Taiwan is in the eye of a geopolitical storm, with increased military activity in its neighbourhood, primarily Chinese. This follows a rare high-level visit of US officials on 2 August, led by Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of US House of Representatives. Taiwan’s domestic political landscape is fast approaching a potential inflection point amidst these dynamics, with the upcoming local elections officially kicking off on 29 August.
This commentary argues that the forthcoming elections, despite being local contests, will enmesh larger security and strategic questions. Heightened cross-strait tensions will have an impact on Taiwan’s local political landscape. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) faces a mixed fate. Its strong stance on national security will help cement its support among the youth. China’s economic warfare, however, may hurt DPP’s popularity among certain sections of voters. Meanwhile, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) seems unlikely to recreate its strong 2018 election performance. The KMT could also lose some support because of internal contradictions on cross-strait ties. The biggest beneficiary is likely to be Taipei’s incumbent Mayor Ko Wen-je and his three-year-old Taiwan’s Peoples Party (TPP).
Drawing the Battle Lines
Taiwanese elections have usually been contested almost exclusively along local issues, with little attention paid to foreign policy, or China in particular. The current state of cross-strait ties, however, will cast a shadow this time, in at least two ways. First, the stance of various parties towards relations with China will impact voter perceptions. Second, China’s increasing coercive tactics against Taiwan in the non-military realm, particularly the recent export bans, will have a political impact. Moreover, the election outcome will provide valuable clues to the future trajectory of Taiwan’s political landscape and foreign policy choices.
On polling day, 26 November 2022, Taiwan’s voting population of about 19 million will choose from over 10,000 candidates, from mayors to district councillors. Of most significance among these are the contests in six special municipalities that together constitute more than 70 per cent of the total population. The DPP, which leads the Pan-Green Coalition, dominates two of these: Tainan and Kaohsiung. The KMT, which ruled Taiwan from 1948 to 1987 as a one-party state and currently leads the Pan-Green Coalition, controls New Taipei and Taichung. The closest battle is expected in the metropolitan areas of Taoyuan and the capital, Taipei, both of which will feature at least a three-way contest.
In all-important Taipei, whose mayor has often gone on to become Taiwan’s president, the DPP has fielded Chen Shih-chung, who recently resigned as Taiwanese health minister and is credited with effectively managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Chiang Wan-an, the great grand-son of Chiang Kai-shek, is the KMT candidate. The third candidate is Vivian Huang, an independent backed by Ko Wen-je.
DPP: A Mixed Bag
Since assuming office in 2016, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and her party, the DPP, have been steadfastly in favour of strengthening Taiwan’s democracy, raising its international profile, and resisting Chinese coercion. The party enjoys exemplary support among the youth. In recent years, Taiwanese youth have gravitated towards an exclusively Taiwanese identity, as opposed to a dual or Chinese identity. The president has retained her popularity despite significant challenges ranging from the pandemic to China. The current heightening of tensions with China is likely to vindicate the DPP’s insistence on augmenting defence capabilities and diplomatic ties, particularly the relationship with the US.
Even as the DPP gains from its clear stance on cross-strait relations, it is not immune to other challenges. A defeat in Taipei will certainly affect Tsai’s standing and her China policy. Moreover, China’s increasing restrictions on food exports have begun to negatively impact Taiwan’s agricultural sector. Fisherfolk in Taiwan were already suffering from a Chinese ban imposed earlier in June. China’s targeting of sectors that affect sizeable sections of people inside Taiwan could create political challenges for the DPP. Beijing’s grey zone tactics of cyber warfare and disinformation campaigns will further exacerbate these problems.
KMT: Contradictory Signals
The KMT has traditionally advocated cordial ties with China. The party’s history dates back over a century and is rooted in the mainland. It has sought to position itself as the more ‘mature’ political force that can better manage cross-strait ties. More recently though, the KMT has made efforts to shed its ‘pro-China’ image in the eyes of young voters, especially under the current party Chair, Zhu Lilun (Eric Chu). This includes reiterating the KMT’s anti-Communist legacy and good relations with the US.
The KMT’s outlook however is hobbled by contradictions. This was most recently illustrated when the party’s Vice Chairman Xia Liyan (Andrew Hsia) made a trip to the mainland amidst China’s unprecedented military drills encircling Taiwan. Liyan’s visit invited severe criticism, including from the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan’s top government agency overseeing cross-strait policies. Moreover, many within the party continue to hold on to older positions, particularly standing by the 1992 consensus, which has become highly unpopular among Taiwanese public.
Ko Wen-je and the TPP: A New Challenger to the DPP
The third political force gaining salience is Ko Wen-je and his TPP. Ko has publicly acknowledged his preparations to contest the 2024 presidential election. He first came to power in 2014 as an independent with DPP’s support, but the two fell apart ahead of the 2018 mayoral election. He was consistently popular through his two terms as Taipei’s mayor. By virtue of his occupying office in Taipei, Ko has received more interest in the national public discourse than other local leaders across Taiwan. So far, he has managed to avoid taking strong positions on cross-strait ties and foreign policy in general. His comments in June this year proposing a bridge to connect Taiwan’s outlying islands of Kinmen with the mainland’s port city of Xiamen, however, stoked controversy. He has also been criticised on a few other occasions, with his detractors accusing him of being ignorant to national security concerns.
Nevertheless, Ko has some clear advantages over the KMT in leading a newly formed party without any legacy—good or bad. He has built his image largely on local governance issues, allowing his party to creatively adapt to the evolving cross-strait situation in the future. This contrasts with the KMT’s limited room for manoeuvre on foreign policy.
While the KMT won’t become irrelevant, the local elections could represent the beginning of a downward slide. The KMT isn’t likely to recreate its strong 2018 showing, in which it won 15 out of 21 local heads of government seats across Taiwan. If a weak performance is coupled with a victory for Huang in Taipei, the opposition will begin to occupy much more space in Taiwan’s political landscape. It will greatly boost Ko Wen-je’s prospects as a leading presidential contender in 2024.
Meanwhile, the Tsai administration must manage the political fallout of Beijing’s economic coercion tactics. Taiwan’s decision to roll back pandemic-induced travel restrictions is a step in the right direction, as these restrictions have affected tourist arrivals as well as hindered trade with overseas markets.
*Kamal Madishetty is Researcher with IPCS’ China Research Programme (CRP).