November 28, 2022
TAIPEI – The Beijing-friendly opposition Kuomintang’s (KMT) landslide victory over the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) at Taiwan’s municipal elections on Saturday should not be interpreted as the island becoming more pro-China, experts said.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office has hailed the election outcome as a sign that “mainstream public opinion” in Taiwan is for “peace, stability and a good life”.
But analysts at the Economist Intelligence Unit said “a KMT victory will not represent a public rebuke of the DPP’s handling of issues across the Taiwan Strait”.
Officials elected at these midterm polls do not have direct say on foreign policy development – in contrast to the presidential election, which will be next held in 2024.
“Midterm elections in Taiwan are primarily concerned with local issues and the personality of individual candidates,” said analysts at the Economist Intelligence Unit. Campaign issues can include a city’s road improvement work or a neighbourhood’s recycling efforts.
Beijing, which has not ruled out force to take control of Taiwan, which it views as a breakaway province, is not a fan of the ruling DPP and has cut off communication channels with the island since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016.
The KMT traditionally favours warmer ties with Beijing, although it has strongly denied being pro-China.
On Saturday, the opposition party claimed victory in 13 of the 21 city mayor and county chief seats up for grabs.
The DPP’s five wins were its worst showing in its 36-year history. Independent candidates took two seats, while the upstart Taiwan People’s Party snagged one.
Significantly, the KMT’s rising star Chiang Wan-an, 43, beat the DPP’s former health minister Chen Shih-chung, 68, by a significant margin to take the coveted Taipei mayoral seat.
Mr Chiang won 42.3 per cent of the total votes, while Dr Chen garnered 31.9 per cent; another 25.1 per cent went to independent candidate Huang Shan-shan.
President Tsai, taking responsibility for her party’s dismal performance, resigned as chair of the DPP about an hour after Mr Chiang claimed victory in the capital city.
“These election results are not a win for China, but China will interpret it as a win for sure,” said Mr Sung Wen-ti, a political scientist at Australian National University.
However, he noted that this is not necessarily a bad thing, because China can now use the election outcome as justification for maintaining “strategic patience” towards the island.
“China can argue that more Beijing-friendly forces in Taiwan are winning, so the prospect for peaceful unification is looking up, and that ‘time is on our side, so let’s be patient’,” he said.
“As a rational actor, Beijing would rather take Taiwan by cheaper, peaceful means than through immensely costly wars. But Beijing needs a pretext to justify patience. Taiwan’s voters had just given it one, if by accident,” Mr Sung added.
The Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman said Beijing will continue to work with Taiwan to “promote peaceful and integrated development of cross-strait relations”, and “firmly opposes Taiwan’s independence and foreign interference”.
Despite the DPP’s emphatic defeat over the weekend, experts are cautious about linking the local elections too closely with the presidential race.
“Recent history has shown us that the local elections do not necessarily predict future election results,” said Professor Wang Yeh-lih, a National Taiwan University political scientist, describing the two elections as “entirely different ball games”.
Ms Tsai won the presidency by a landslide in 2020, despite her party suffering heavy losses to the KMT at the 2018 local elections.
This means that the DPP can still be a strong contender for the island’s top post in 2024, when Ms Tsai must step down after reaching her two-term limit, said Prof Wang.
“It’s not like the DPP has never failed before,” Ms Tsai said in her party resignation speech on Saturday.
“We don’t have time to feel sorry. We fell, but we will stand up again.”