At first glance, Taiwan’s local elections on November 26 may seem like a sideshow when compared with the development of the current phase of the “Great World Game.”
However, this is a false impression, which is at the very least contradicted by the fact that the preliminary results (which were completely unexpected even for the author of this article) attracted attention in the capitals of the world’s major players. Whose public emotions sometimes show the exact opposite in this case. And it is clear why.
Precisely because the various pre-election surveys of Taiwanese sentiments on a range of “sensitive and symbolic” issues – for example, the need to strengthen the island’s defenses “in the face of the threat of military attack from the mainland”—seemed to indicate an overwhelming preference for the positions of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and the president representing it, Tsai Ing-wen. It would be natural to expect that such support would have a positive impact on the two parties and the outcome of such an important event as the election of mayors and local deputies.
However, according to the announced results, the DPP, which has taken an uncompromising stance on key issues concerning relations with the mainland, lost to its political opponent, the Kuomintang. During the previous term of government (from 2008 to 2016), the island’s relations with the same “mainland,” especially in the economic sphere, developed at an unprecedented pace. However, there was no tangible progress in solving the key – for the mainland – problem of “restoration of the unity of the nation.”
It should be noted that strengthening the positions of the DPP and Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan’s political space would be very useful for Washington in its policy of making the island a source of constant headaches for its main geopolitical adversary in Beijing. For which, despite its grandiloquent announcements of wanting to solve the Taiwan problem “non-peacefully,” a “peaceful” solution is most appropriate. This was reaffirmed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the podium of the 20th CCP Congress. And the outcome of the recent local elections in Taiwan may prove to be an important intermediate step toward implementing precisely this second option.
The KMT won 13 of the 22 city mayorships, including four of the six metropolitan areas. The KMT now controls 70% of the island’s population. Of particular significance is the party’s victory in the capital city of Taipei and the surrounding metropolitan area of New Taipei.
Incumbent Mayor Hou Yu-ih, who convincingly defeated his DPP rival (with a 50:41.6% vote share), is already being touted as a likely candidate for next year’s presidential election (although KMT leader Eric Chu is not off the agenda). Their result could prove to be an important step in Taiwan’s domestic and foreign policy in the direction the PRC leadership wants it to take.
Such a prospect seems all the more likely given that the current president, the charismatic Tsai Ing-wen, who is serving her second consecutive term, cannot run again (due to constitutional restrictions). And there is no such brilliant personality in the DPP who could be offered to the Taiwanese as a replacement for Tsai Ing-wen. Taking full blame for the failure (in Taiwan itself, the term “rout” is used of the party she led, she announced her resignation from the post of DPP chair almost immediately after the preliminary election results were announced, for which she had good reasons, since all the candidates she had personally campaigned for were defeated in the election
Note that this is the second time Tsai Ing-wen has voluntarily resigned as DPP chairwoman. She had previously done so after an equally crushing defeat in a similar election in local government in November 2018. This was all the more painful because just three years earlier, the same DPP and Tsai Ing-wen had triumphantly won the general parliamentary and presidential elections.
But unlike the current situation, in late 2018 – early 2019, Tsai Ing-wen had the opportunity to run for the presidency again (after winning in January 2016) in the regular parliamentary and presidential elections held a year later. The DPP had no other candidate close to her in popularity (as it does not now), and a month after she left office as party leader, she was asked to withdraw her resignation. Tsai agreed and again led her party to a landslide victory in the general election and retained the presidency.
However, the current realities in no way encourage the current president to return to the post of DPP chairman for the second time. Nevertheless, experts are reluctant to make predictions about the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary elections. After all, the main reason for the DPP’s failure in the last local elections is not so much growing sympathy for the Kuomintang, but the impression that the DPP’s eight years in power were not effective enough.
As for the Kuomintang’s prospects in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, “local” experts recommend that the party leadership rid itself of the image as a “branch of the Chinese Communist Party.” However, this image is a clear exaggeration, because despite the Kuomintang’s signing under the “1992 Consensus,” with its central provision on respect for the “principle of one China,” political practice during the time the party was in power in Taiwan was reduced to maximum delay in implementing this principle.
In this regard, even the frequent statements (made under the impression of the latest elections) about the fast process of peaceful reunification of Taiwan with the “mainland” in case the Kuomintang captures a central government on the island seem to be an exaggeration. Indeed, Beijing faces a choice “between bad and very bad” in Taiwan’s domestic politics. Throughout the Kuomintang’s previous period in power, for example, American arms were purchased on a large scale. But at least that party does not declare that the island must achieve full independence under international law.
The PRC has taken a positive view of the election results discussed here and believes that “the DPP’s desperate attempt to play the card of ‘defending Taiwan from the mainland’ has failed.” As for opinions in the camp of China’s main opponent, Bloomberg links the DPP’s defeat to the factor of “low voter turnout,” among others. Despite the fact that 60% of voters went to the polls. This figure is quite decent for a European country, but in Taiwan it is really the lowest since 1994. However, it is worth noting that as a general assessment of the results of the past elections is given the statement of the press secretary of the Special Agency for Taiwan Affairs under the PRC government that “the results reflect society’s desire for “peace, stability and a better life.”
The main thing is that the results of the local elections in Taiwan do not tempt the “hawkish” wing of Washington politicians to a “compensatory” reaction. That is, to an even greater intensification of the confrontation with China in the Taiwan Strait.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.