In unified local elections held for the first time since 2018, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has suffered a stunning defeat. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT, Kuomintang) not only held its ground, but made some notable gains, including Chiang Kai-shek’s great-grandson, Chiang Wan-an winning in Taipei.
Accepting responsibility for this loss, President Tsai Ing-wen stepped down as chair of the DPP. The results show the Taiwanese electorate shifting support to the KMT, a party seen as more favorably disposed to China. While this could mark a new phase in cross-strait relations, seeing it as a step closer to unification is a serious misunderstanding. The DPP will need to take the results of these elections seriously, but it is premature to conclude that the KMT will dominate the 2024 presidential election. There are several reasons for this.
First, there are major differences in voting patterns between presidential elections and local elections in Taiwan. In presidential elections, voters consider Taiwan’s relationship with China, but in local elections, the relationship with China does not typically figure highly in voters’ calculations. Instead, voters look at the individual candidate as well as the performance of the incumbent. In the 2018 unified local elections, the KMT came out strong, and aside from Kaohsiung’s Han Kuo-yu, the regional KMT heads of local governments that were elected at the time were relatively moderate, which surely appealed to voters. This made it harder for DPP candidates to successfully distinguish themselves from their KMT opponents.
Second, the Taiwanese electorate has a notable sense of balance. The DPP tends to do well at the national level, in both the presidency and the Legislative Yuan. Some observers argue that for this reason alone, voters tend to favor the KMT locally to achieve balance. One might say that this approach ensures diversity.
Third, the KMT still has relatively strong local turnout organizations. Agricultural associations are typical examples, and the KMT fundamentally retains a strong base within local communities. This tends to be significant in local elections. The DPP may have an edge in national elections, but it has yet to match the KMT at the grassroots organizational level. There are other unique local and regional circumstances, for instance in Kinmen County, the part of Taiwan that is closest to Mainland China.
The DPP’s defeat was indeed decisive, but there is a strong feeling of déjà vu. The party also performed poorly in 2018, and Tsai stepped down as DPP chair then as well. At the time, Tsai’s approval ratings were at a low. However, China misinterpreted the results, and saw the KMT victory as opening the way to reunification. Shortly after those elections, in January 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that he was willing to use military force to achieve unification. Although Xi was hoping to put pressure on the Tsai administration, the comment backfired. The Taiwanese electorate reacted strongly to Xi’s remarks, and support for Tsai and her tougher stance on China rebounded. She received a further boost when Taiwanese took note of China’s Hong Kong policy. Later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tsai’s approval ratings topped 50 percent.
Surely Beijing remembers the lesson. If it misinterprets the results of the local elections this year as well, and talks up invasion in a bid to increase pressure on Taiwan, the move will once again backfire. How well Beijing comprehends Taiwanese politics will be an important element in understanding future cross-strait relations. China’s words and actions in the wake of these elections may offer some useful insight into the degree to which China understands Taiwan.