On the weekend that Canada announced its new Indo-Pacific Strategy and angry protests emerged across China, Taiwan (Republic of China, ROC) held its “nine-in-one” local elections on November 26.
In what the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT, Kuomintang) celebrated as a “blue wave,” voters elected KMT or allied non-party candidates as city mayor or county magistrate in 15 of 21 municipalities. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) elected mayors or magistrates to only five municipalities, even as their number of councillors increased. The Taiwan People’s Party elected one mayor. This election was a setback for the DPP, the party that draws ire from Beijing because of its emphasis on Taiwan’s sovereignty. Current President Tsai Ing-wen immediately resigned as Chair of the DPP to take responsibility for failing to mobilize voters.
Taiwan election observers often view elections as prognostics for the next presidential race. So, what does this election tell us about political dynamics in Taiwan? What are its implications for peace and security in the Indo-Pacific? All election data comes from the Central Election Commission database for this and historicalelections, but I interpret them as having done ethnographic research on local elections in Hualien and Nantou for two decades. I have also done research in Taipei and Tainan.
Taipei – the Country’s Capital
Taipei is a multi-ethnic city and home to the Mainlander elite that came to Taiwan from China in 1945. Taipei is where clashes between Mainlander troops and Native Taiwanese protestors happened in 1947; memories still linger. Some Taipei ridings are Mainlander KMT bastions, whereas Hokkien-dominated working-class districts have often supported the DPP, and many people appreciate KMT appeals for “ethnic harmony.” A strong mayor who obtains social consensus in Taipei could become president. Two of Taiwan’s four democratically elected presidents began their political careers in that role.
Both parties placed their rising stars in Taipei’s race. The DPP ran Chen Shih-chung, Minister of Health and Welfare from 2017 to 2022, who gained recognition in daily televised COVID-19 updates and enjoyed public trust because of his performance in that role. The KMT candidate was 44-year-old Chiang Wan-an, who claims descent from former ROC Presidents Chiang Ching-kuo and his father, Chiang Kai-shek. A dynamic speaker and a US-trained corporate lawyer, Chiang won with 42% of the votes, compared to 32% for Chen. His ties to the Chiang family make him a reassuring choice for older people who wax nostalgic about the stability of martial law. At the same time, his good looks, charisma and global outlook inspire younger voters. He could eventually become KMT Chair and even President.
Tainan – the Deep South
The DPP’s five victories were in the South, where Hokkien speakers predominate. The DPP still has a chance to win Chiayi City, as that election was postponed due to the death by illness of a candidate. In traditionally deep-green Tainan, DPP candidate and incumbent Huang Wei-che won with 49% of the vote, compared to 44% for his KMT opponent. Huang garnered an additional 66,166 votes compared to the 2018 election. Kaohsiung’s re-election of DPP Chen Chi-mai with 58% of the vote was a clear repudiation of the KMT.
The DPP’s resilience in the South is partly related to China. Following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August, China suspended vast categories of food imports, notably fruit grown in the South. Tainan DPP legislator Wang Ting-yu said, “We will not be intimidated by PRC’s (China’s) weaponization of trade.” If China were trying to persuade southern voters to vote against the DPP, the strategy backfired. At a deeper sociological level, this illustrates how face-to-face networks emerging from localized ethnic relations remain impervious to outsider attempts to change voting outcomes.
Hualien – Indigenous Territory
In Hualien, which has the highest number of Indigenous people in Taiwan (28.4% of Hualien’s population), the DPP candidate for county magistrate was Hsinchu-born journalist and politician Kolas Yotaka, of the Amis Indigenous people. Since 2020, she has been President Tsai’s official spokesperson. The KMT opponent was incumbent Hsu Chen-wei, best known for being the wife of former magistrate Fu Kun-chi who lost his job due to charges of illegal insider trading on the stock market. Kolas lost 32%, compared to a landslide showing 65% for Hsu. Kolas got around half of Hsu’s votes even in ridings dominated by the Amis, most likely because she is perceived as an outsider working on behalf of the unpopular Tsai.
This is only the latest manifestation of a long-standing dynamic in which local KMT clientelism successfully mobilizes Indigenous votes, even against a well-known Indigenous activist. Even President Tsai’s 2016 apology for 400 years of colonialism and the establishment of the Presidential Office Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee have failed to gain Indigenous support for the DPP.
What does this mean?
The above examples show how elections are embedded in local social dynamics, including ethnic relations over generations. Although the international media may be transfixed by imagined threats from China, local people are more concerned about livelihood issues like stagnant wages, elder care, and housing affordability. They want their mayors, city councillors and village heads to be people they know and trust. The KMT has dominated local elections since democratization by portraying itself as a non-ideological party focused on economic development and ethnic harmony. These dynamics mean that local elections are insufficient to make prognostics about national-level elections.
Beyond Taiwan, leaders in Beijing are likely to breathe a deep sigh of collective relief. The Chinese Communist Party has, for the past two decades, preferred to seek productive relations and trade with KMT governments. Today, party leaders are probably reassured that the KMT is not a spent force. KMT electoral success gives credence to anyone in China who argues that attacking Taiwan is not urgent because elections could eventually bring candidates who favour rapprochement between the two sides to power. Canada would welcome such a reaction in China as we announce our Indo-Pacific strategy intended to foster peace in the region.