The China Factor in Taiwan’s Midterms

Will China’s military threats impact Taiwan’s upcoming local elections?

The China Factor in Taiwan’s Midterms
Credit: Facebook/ Chen Shih-chung

In light of August’s palpable increase in tensions across the Taiwan Strait, analysts around the world are keenly watching how China’s military demonstrations will impact Taiwan’s upcoming midterms, set for November 26. Although intuitively we may think that these threats will become a central talking point for the upcoming election, the reality is seemingly the opposite. Chinese military threats are not driving discourse for the midterm elections – at least not yet. On the contrary, the key issues defining major races in Taiwan have little to do with China.

While it remains to be seen to what extent the recent military drills will impact Taiwan’s domestic politics, it is important not to overstate their influence on November’s elections.

Although it is well documented by political scientists that cross-strait relations dominate Taiwan’s presidential elections, midterm elections are different. Instead, midterm elections – which involve selecting local-level leaders, including mayors and city council members – are driven by domestic-facing issues that do not necessarily intersect with cross-strait politics in the same way. In presidential elections, issues of national security, Taiwan’s international standing, and perceptions of how Taiwan and China will interact drive election discourse. In midterm elections however, national security is not the main point of discussion. Instead, it is about convincing voters that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or Kuomintang (KMT) candidate is more competent, can deliver better domestic development, or is more representative of Taiwanese civil society.

Political party identity and national identity are both still critical, but discourse is driven by the quality of the DPP and KMT, rather than their relations with China. The DPP and KMT still try their best to mobilize voters based on how they relate to these parties, but mayors and city councilors have little sway over national defense. Instead of discussing cross-strait relations on a national and international scale, midterm election discourse centers around which party is qualitatively better for improving Taiwan’s domestic political development.

The three most contentious races – the mayorship contests in Taipei, New Taipei, and Taoyuan – best exemplify just how little the Chinese military threat discourse has impacted the upcoming elections.