Taiwan’s upcoming midterm elections will be a critical moment for the future of East Asian regional order. For the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which currently controls both the presidency and the legislature, this midterm will be a test of how well it can perform in an election while simultaneously dealing with the ongoing pandemic and the reopening of Taiwan’s borders. For the KMT, it is a test to see if the opposition party is able to regain any of the electoral popularity it has seeming lost since the last midterm election four years ago. Finally, for the handful of small parties running in mayoral races, it will be a test of whether their candidates are simply potential spoilers for the two big parties, or if they will be able to gain a meaningful share of the votes.
In total, there are 22 mayoral or county head elections scheduled for November 26. Many of these races will be easy victories for the DPP or KMT. Here we will explain some of the contested races, how they reflect some of Taiwan’s current political challenges, and what their results will say about Taiwan’s future as we look to 2024’s presidential election.
No race will be more closely watched than Taipei’s mayoral election. As Taiwan’s capital, this race is often a predictor for future presidential candidates. The KMT has announced that it will run Chiang Wan-an, legislator and great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek. At age 43, Chiang is considered one of the KMT’s best-known younger politicians.
The Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) plans to run deputy mayor Huang Shan-shan, who has been groomed by current mayor and party chair Ko Wen-je as a successor, even if there has been some backlash against Huang for not actually joining the party, but remaining a member of James Soong’s People First Party.
What makes the TPP and KMT’s Taipei race so tense is that they are competing over the pan-blue vote and the moderate independent vote. In the 2020 legislative polls, the TPP managed to win 11 percent of the party vote, giving them five members in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. Although their popularity has fluctuated over the last two years, so has the KMT’s. When two pan-blue parties both nominate candidates and compete for the “not the DPP” vote, it has the potential to split votes.
On the other hand, some public opinion polling shows Huang siphoning young voters away from the DPP, which could hurt the DPP’s electoral plans as well. Whether or not the TPP will spoil the KMT or DPP’s races will be a key sign to watch for.
After months of rumors, the DPP finally announced it will run its COVID-19 leader, Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung. It may seem like Chen should be in a strong position given the KMT and TPP’s competition, but his and the DPP’s popularity is largely in flux due to the Tsai administration’s performance in fighting COVID-19. Although the DPP’s dip in popularity during COVID-19 spikes is usually temporary and rebounds after a few months, Taiwan’s COVID-19 situation during the election will be critical for the DPP. Chen is a strong candidate, but timing will be key for his victory.
Hou You-yi, the KMT mayor of New Taipei, consistently polls as one of the most popular politicians in Taiwan. His strong public support during the COVID-19 pandemic has led many to wonder if he will run for president in 2024, but his decision to re-run for mayor may indicate a reluctance to do so. KMT factional infighting also suggests that the question of who will be the party’s 2024 presidential candidate is not going to be decided anytime soon. Hou, however, has also fluctuated in popularity along with Taiwan’s COVID-19 spikes. Although he is a strong candidate, various COVID-19 related issues will make his popularity vary up until election day.
The DPP is running former Taichung mayor and former Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Chia-lung as its New Taipei mayoral candidate. Lin faces a steep challenge against Hou. The DPP may attack the pan-Blue camp over its choice of Taipei and New Taipei candidates using the framework of transitional justice. Hou is criticized as the police official who oversaw the series of events leading to free speech martyr Nylon Deng’s self-immolation in authoritarian times. As a former mayor himself, Lin will be able to match Hou in experience, but his relative level of popularity in New Taipei will still make it a contentious race for the DPP.
Taoyuan is a good test case to see just how much the KMT’s factional infighting has hurt its ability to function as a unified opposition during a critical election. In 2018, the KMT lost Taoyuan, a historic stronghold, to the current DPP mayor Cheng Wen-tsan. It hopes to retake Taoyuan by running former premier and vice presidential candidate Simon Chang.
Chang, the choice of KMT party chair Eric Chu, was challenged for the nomination by former KMT party spokesperson Lo Chih-chiang. Lo asserted that he wished to run, but Chu refused to nominate Lo, instead tapping Chang. Causing further confusion, before Chang’s nomination was announced it was reported that former KMT presidential candidate and former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu was intending to run for Taoyuan mayor.
The DPP has nominated current Hsinchu mayor Lin Chih-chien. Pan-Blue attacks on Lin currently revolve around allegations that he plagiarized his MA thesis, perhaps hoping to replicate a scandal that sunk the candidacy of KMT mayoral nominee Jane Lee during her by-election bid following Han Kuo-yu’s 2020 recall in Kaohsiung.
City Council Races
City council races present a challenge for both the KMT and the DPP. City councilors are elected through a multi-member district (MMD) voting system where voters cast a ballot for their favorite candidate. Depending on the number of seats in the district or city council those with the most votes are declared winners. Pan-Blue voters will have to pick between KMT and TPP voters, which will also lead to splitting the pan-Blue vote. The DPP, however, is not immune to pan-Green competition.
Small parties like the TPP and New Power Party (NPP) also hope to take advantage of local elections to secure lower-level electoral success. In 2018, the pan-Green NPP ran over 45 candidates and won 16 seats. Even though proportionally less than the DPP’s overall number of city councilors, these seats did take away votes from the DPP. Although the NPP is not in as strong of a strategic position as they were in 2018, they still will win votes from pan-Green voters who are inclined to vote for a different option from the DPP. The NPP may also pose a mayoral challenge for the DPP in the northern city of Keelung, where the small party has nominated city councilor Chen Wei-chung to run against the DPP and KMT.
The TPP also plans to run legislator Ann Kao in Hsinchu, probably leveraging Kao’s background as an executive at FoxConn/Hon Hai and Hsinchu’s strong tech sector.
Although midterms in Taiwan are often more a reflection of local politics going down to the microlevel of neighborhood relations, it will still be an important signal of each political party’s level of popularity. While not as useful as a major elections party ballot vote, the relative number of city councilors each party gets will show how strong the party’s standing is come November.
What about the role of cross-strait relations? Do Taiwanese care about China during midterm elections? Public opinion research shows that cross-strait relations do still factor in during midterm elections by influencing which political party citizens are initially likely to support. Mayoral candidates have historically also used their attitudes toward Beijing as a way to pull or push votes away. Considering China’s rising military intimidation toward Taiwan and Xi Jinping’s expected speech at the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress later this year, which is much anticipated for how he discusses Taiwan, it is likely we will see more China and cross-strait rhetoric from candidates this midterm than in previous years.
In previewing the 2022 midterms, it is hard not to think back to 2018 and the DPP’s shocking defeat to the KMT in many critical races, especially Kaohsiung, which led to the rise of Han Kuo-yu and a turbulent two years for the DPP. But since 2020, the DPP has been in a strong position in spite of COVID-19. Although there is no Han Kuo-yu type figure running this year, the DPP’s success in the midterm is not a sure thing, but it certainly is in a position to see great success come this fall.