Local elections in Taiwan over the weekend resulted in a defeat for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and a Kuomintang (KMT) victory. The DPP was outperformed by the KMT, losing most of the traditional pan-Blue territories that it had managed to grab onto in previous years. Pan-Blue incumbents, for the most part, retained their seats.
Despite the Taipei mayoral race attracting a great deal of attention, with the possibility of the DPP capturing Taipei for the first time in decades, the party failed to take Taiwan’s capital. The DPP also failed to retain Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Keelung, which historically trended pan-Blue. Taoyuan in particular was seen as a prize possession for the DPP after it won control in 2014, with mayor Cheng Wen-tsan elevated to a potential presidential contender by the win.
Cheng’s popularity originally suggested that the DPP had strong odds of retaining Taoyuan. However, the DPP’s chances were sunk by a plagiarism scandal that led to the party’s Taoyuan mayoral candidate, former Hsinchu mayor Lin Chih-chien, withdrawing from the race.
The plagiarism controversy was the first of a series of similar scandals that affected politicians of both the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps, mostly regarding accusations of plagiarism for graduate degrees or academic work. The DPP’s failure to handle the plagiarism scandal affecting Lin is thought to have been a contributing factor to not only its losses in Taoyuan, but the victory of Ann Kao of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) in Hsinchu, where Lin previously held office. The TPP is a newer party formed by Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je and has positioned itself as a light Blue party that is less hardline on cross-strait issues than the KMT.
The DPP tried to attack the pan-Blue camp over issues of corruption in the election. Yilan county magistrate Lin Zi-miao is currently under investigation over property purchased by a relative on a rezoned lot that was originally protected land, as well as over checks worth over 100 million Taiwanese dollars received by Lin from former KMT legislator Yang Chi-hsiung. The KMT’s Hualien county magistrate candidate, Hsu Chen-wei, originally became county magistrate after her husband, then county magistrate and current Hualien legislator Fu Kun-chi, was to be jailed on insider trading charges. Fu divorced Hsu to name her deputy county magistrate so that she could continue to rule Hualien while he was in jail. Yet these scandals did not prevent Hsu and Lin’s victories in Hualien and Yilan, respectively.
The DPP’s attempt to attack the pan-Blue camp over corruption did not appear successful. Apart from facing self-plagiarism accusations over using data from government-funded research for her dissertation, Ann Kao also faced allegations of embezzling funds meant for legislative assistants from her boyfriend, who works in her office. This did not prevent her from winning Hsinchu mayor, in a major win for the TPP.
Perhaps most memorable of all, pan-Blue independent Chung Tung-chin’s victory in Miaoli took place in spite of past gang-related murder and assault charges against Chung. As a candidate, Chung was backed by KMT incumbent county magistrate Hsu Yao-chang but not by the KMT’s central leadership
In the Taipei mayor’s race, the DPP fielded former Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung against former Taipei deputy mayor Huang Shan-shan of the TPP and former legislator Chiang Wan-an of the KMT. Chen led Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 as head of the Central Epidemic Command Center, while Chiang is the purported great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek. Chen ultimately lost, with 434,558 votes to Chiang’s 575,590, with Huang pulling in a respectable 342,141 votes.
It was originally thought that Chen’s odds of victory were increased by the possibility of a split vote between Chiang and Huang in the pan-Blue camp. Although he clearly benefited from the split vote, it was not enough to give him the victory.
Otherwise, KMT mayors Hou You-yi in New Taipei and Lu Shiow-yen in Taichung hung onto their seats by large margins. Hou has been touted as a potential frontrunner for the KMT’s presidential candidate in 2024, though Lu’s strong performance has also led her to be increasingly discussed as a possible presidential candidate. KMT chair Eric Chu’s position is strengthened by the KMT’s victories and, despite claiming that he does not intend to seek the KMT’s presidential nomination, it is discussed that he, too, may like to make another presidential bid.
The DPP only won five of 22 municipalities, which is the party’s worst showing in 36 years, and down from winning six in 2018. The DPP primarily hung onto its traditional base in southern Taiwan, in Tainan and Kaohsiung. The DPP’s loss of municipalities was given the most weight by commentators, but in the city and county councilor elections, 367 KMT candidates won office, compared to 277 DPP city or county councilor candidates.
However, the DPP has always performed weaker than the KMT when it came to local elections, and many of the areas that reverted back to pan-Blue control were only recent gains by the DPP. As such, the results of the DPP’s losses are not as dramatic as in 2018, even if one observes a similar disparity in voters. In 2022, around 5,700,000 voted for the KMT while 4,740,000 voted for the DPP. This is to be contrasted to 6,100,000 voting for the KMT and 5,010,000 voting for the DPP in 2018.
In many ways, the election results maintained the status quo of pan-Blue dominance over local politics, rather than a dramatic return to a form for the KMT, which has otherwise suffered successive defeats and internal crises over the past decade. In part, the 2022 election results may not be as shocking as 2018 due to the absence of any phenomenon analogous to the 2018 “Han wave,” the meteoric rise to superstardom of Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu of the KMT. Han made waves by capturing the DPP’s traditional stronghold of Kaohsiung, catapulting him from obscurity to become the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate.
Likewise, in 2018 the KMT proved highly successful at campaigning on issues such as the legalization of gay marriage or whether to phase out goals to transition Taiwan away from nuclear energy. But this time around, the only issue being voted on was whether to lower the voting age from 20 to 18.
The voting age referendum did not pass either. More voters supported lowering Taiwan’s voting age to 18, but there were not enough votes in favor for the referendum to be binding. The change was ostensibly supported by both parties, though the KMT campaigned less heavily on the issue seeing as adding 500,000 voters between 18 and 20 to the electorate would favor the pan-Green camp. The KMT has struggled with support among young people in past years due to its pro-China image, having less than 9,000 members under 40 in 2020.
In the wake of the election result, President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP resigned as party chair to take responsibility for her party’s losses. Subsequently, one expects a power vacuum in the DPP ahead of presidential and legislative elections in 2024. This is particularly likely to affect the DPP’s choice of presidential candidate, with Tsai rumored to prefer a candidate other than current Vice President William Lai. Tsai’s ability to influence the DPP’s next choice of presidential candidate and factional influence in the DPP will be curtailed by the loss. Cheng Wen-tsan’s star may be on the wane now in favor of Lai, with Cheng’s successors in Taoyuan unable to hold the special municipality for the DPP.
What the election shows, then, is that the DPP did not handle domestic issues such as low salaries, unaffordable housing, and Taiwan’s demographic woes with a declining birthrate and growing elderly population to voters’ satisfaction. As a result, the DPP was punished for it. This was also the case in 2018.
Yet the KMT’s victories are not a sign that Taiwanese voters have begun to swing in a pro-China direction. Cross-strait politics was not the dominant frame of this election, as it usually is for presidential and legislative elections, in spite of some attempts by DPP candidates to introduce this as an issue. Namely, local elections in Taiwan are primarily about local issues, rather than international ones that take greater precedence for elections at the presidential and legislative level.