The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Nathan F. Batto ̶ associate research fellow at the Institute of Political Science, Academica Sinica in Taipei – is the 350th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Identify the top three outcomes of Taiwan’s November 26 local elections.
The most important thing is that President Tsai stepped down as DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] party chair. She wasn’t on the ballot, and this result wasn’t a resounding rejection of her performance or that of the executive branch more broadly. Nevertheless, the DPP has always been an election-driven party, and the party’s culture demanded that the leader take responsibility for the DPP’s poor performance.
Second, the pool of potential presidential candidates is relatively small. It includes current and former vice presidents, premiers, party chairs, six municipal mayors, and perhaps one or two people with unique qualifications. The fact that the KMT won four of those six races this year bolsters their cohort of presidential hopefuls for the next several election cycles.
Third, the KMT confirmed its status as the second largest party. Recent opinion polls had suggested that [former] Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je’s Taiwan People’s Party has nearly as much support as the KMT. In a majoritarian system like Taiwan’s, you don’t want to be the third largest party. The KMT’s ability to win a wide array of seats up and down the ballot combined with the TPP’s lousy performance in all but a few races remind us that a robust political party consists of more than a single political superstar.
Explain the factors behind the DPP’s weak election results.
Turnout was lower than normal, and most analysts suspect that the DPP failed to motivate people who have supported it in the past to turn out. Some of the reasons bandied about include disgust with factional infighting, a lack of enthusiasm toward the economy and pandemic response, and weariness from the constant military threats from China.
Tsai encouraged voters to treat the election as a referendum on her or to send a message to China. However, Tsai’s approval ratings are merely so-so, and China was not on the mayoral ballot, so voters seem to have rejected this attempt to nationalize the election. Without a compelling overall message, the DPP had to contest each race individually, and the KMT had a stronger set of candidates.
Analyze whether the KMT’s resurgence is an anomaly or shift in Taiwan’s political landscape.
National politics are shaped by national identity and how to deal with China, and the DPP currently has a significant structural advantage. However, there is no Taiwanese or Chinese way to pave a road or subsidize false teeth, so the KMT is not necessarily disadvantaged in local politics.
Because of the KMT wave in 2018 (which was powered by Tsai’s awful approval ratings), half of the races featured a KMT incumbent running for re-election, most in either a DPP-leaning or a toss-up area. Incumbents usually win re-election, and almost all this cohort had high approval ratings. The open seats were mostly fought cities and counties that historically lean toward the KMT. While it is surprising that the KMT won so many contests, no single outcome was particularly unexpected.
If this outcome was not anomalous, neither did it mark a shift. Neither side has a structural advantage in local government, so there is no reason to think that the KMT will do so well in the future when it does not have a bevy of popular incumbents or such a favorable map for open seats.
What does the election of Chiang Wan-an (also known as Wayne Chiang) as the new mayor of Taipei portend for the KMT’s strategic positioning in national politics?
China is inevitably an important topic in national elections, and the KMT has painted itself into a corner on this issue. The KMT is still stuck with the electorally unviable 1992 Consensus (one China, each side with its own interpretation) as the cornerstone of how to deal with China. The PRC insists that the 1992 Consensus is simply one China (the PRC), so the DPP is now seen as the party defending the status quo.
The KMT has proven unwilling or unable to move to a new position through internal party mechanisms. If it is to adopt a new, more electorally competitive stance, it will have to be dragged there by a party member running in general elections and appealing to the median voter. Chiang is one of only a small handful of KMT figures with the potential to do this.
It is not clear whether Chiang has the desire, vision, charisma, or guts to take on such a challenge. Thus far, his political career has been marked more by amiably going along with the party mainstream than by boldly demanding other people follow his lead. However, as mayor of the capital, he will eventually have to take a stance on how to deal with China. How Chiang handles this – as well as how well he handles all the more mundane tasks of city government – will determine whether or not his election marks an important milestone for the KMT or whether he is merely another forgettable local politician.
Is President Tsai now a lame duck? Is the DPP transitioning into a post-Tsai era?
Yes and no. Tsai is no longer the party chair, so she will be far less able to tamp down party infighting, influence nominations, or invoke party discipline to pass controversial items. She will probably also be less active in domestic policy matters. Vice President William Lai will almost certainly take over as DPP chair and is the most likely person to win the next presidential election, so power will gravitate toward him over the next few months.
That said, Tsai will still exercise all the powers of the presidency until May 2024, and her approval ratings remain respectable. She will continue to be an influential actor, especially in the areas of foreign affairs, cross-strait policy, military affairs, and national security. More abstractly, her grand vision – diversifying the economy away from a reliance on China, positioning Taiwan as a member of the international community of democracies, strengthening military capacity and cooperation, and defending the status quo – continues to enjoy broad support within the DPP and general public. Tsai herself may be nearing the end of her tenure, but her ideas continue to motivate the party and the country.