TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — This year’s local elections are going to have far more significance than normal. The reverberations will be felt for the next decade or longer.
The nine-in-one elections will be held on Nov. 26, and voters will turn out to choose their representatives from the township level all the way up to the mayors of the “big six” metropolises. Along the way, the future direction of the Kuomintang (KMT), the viability of smaller parties, and the political playing field going into the 2024 national elections will all be laid bare.
Traditionally, these elections were seen as the local equivalent of the mid-terms in the United States and as a way to see which way the political winds were blowing. That will be true this year, but so much more is at stake this time around.
They may also be the first major elections to see approximate gender parity at the top level. By my calculations, the officially nominated candidates for mayor and county commissioner stand at four men and four women, and stand at nine each if you include likely candidates.
For the KMT, the direction the party takes going into 2024 is at stake. They lost both of the last two national elections in landslides and remain weak in the polls.
This election will test KMT Chair Eric Chu Li-lun’s (朱立倫) leadership. He’s lost six of the last seven electoral contests since he took the reins, and if the party does badly in this year’s elections he will be under enormous pressure to resign.
If he does resign, those waiting in the wings to take his position are mostly deep-blue ideologues who would move the party even further out of the electoral mainstream (the main possible exception being New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜). Chu may have backed himself into a corner by promising he would not only hold the cities and counties the party leads now but also lead the them to victory in over half of the “big six” metropolises.
Could be tricky
The tricky part for Chu is the KMT won the last local elections in a landslide and has a lot of territory to defend. That could be tough in places like Yilan, where the county commissioner is under investigation for corruption.
Chu has some advantages, however. In the cities and counties they hold, most of the KMT's incumbents have only served one term and are eligible for re-election.
On his promise to win at least four of the “big six,” the KMT is running two strong incumbents in New Taipei and Taichung. The Taoyuan and Taipei mayors are term-limited, leaving both up for grabs in cities that tend to lean pan-blue (pro-KMT).
In Taipei, the party has a strong presumed candidate in Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安), though he has recently been sliding in the polls. In Taoyuan, the primary has already been ugly and embarrassing.
Even if the KMT loses some ground in the county commissioner races, if they can secure both Taipei and Taoyuan then Chu will likely continue as chair and keep the party on its current path.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has a different set of challenges. Having lost the last round of local elections so badly, they have less to defend and room to grow, but they will be up against a large number of KMT politicians with the advantage of incumbency.
Keeping Taoyuan or winning Taipei would be huge victories for the party, showing they are making inroads in traditionally KMT territory. While the press thinks the DPP's potential candidates for both cities are strong, they may not be as good as the party hopes.
Looking at legacy
Unlike the KMT’s Chu, DPP Chair Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) isn’t likely to be too worried about her job. She has two years left in her presidency and is more likely more concerned about her legacy than the results of these elections.
The big challenges facing the DPP aren’t so much external as internal. With the end of the Tsai era in sight, the factional infighting that Tsai worked so hard to bring under control is breaking out in a big way.
The DPP factions traditionally jockeyed for power and influence with all the intrigue of an imperial court. Until the Tsai years, this infighting was destructive to party unity and a public embarrassment.
Now they’re back at it. Battles are breaking out all through the primary process and it’s only just begun — a situation that future columns will explore.
Then there are the smaller parties. In the last national election, on the party list vote when voters choose their party preference for legislators, the result was a roughly even three-way split between the KMT, DPP and third parties.
That one third of voters looking for alternatives to the KMT and DPP opens the possibility for smaller parties to demonstrate they are electable on the ground, though there is no chance they will be able to beat the two big parties across the board. This is explained in depth in a previous column on the challenges the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) faces in generating a national ground game and fielding experienced candidates with name recognition.
These parties and the public know this. For example, the TPP is aiming to win only 10% of the city and county council seats nationally. If they manage to come even close to that, they will have proven they are capable, gained valuable experience, and have newly minted politicians able to make a serious impact going forward.
The TPP has already had some successes. They have leveraged their third-largest party status in the legislature by elevating the public profile of their lawmakers on talk shows and in the press.
Some previously independent councillors have joined the party, giving them some valuable local footholds. Even more striking, they have some serious potential candidates for major positions, including the mayors of Taipei and Hsinchu.
Even if they don’t win any of those high-profile positions, they potentially could shift the debate on the issues and play spoiler for one or the other of the major parties, especially the KMT. A lot is riding on these elections for the TPP.
It will make clear whether the party is going to be a power to be reckoned with going forward. Or not.
Two other parties also have a lot riding on these elections: the New Power Party (NPP) and the Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP). In the NPP’s case, it needs to demonstrate it is still relevant.
After a series of scandals and multiple waves of mass defections, the NPP lost a lot of support. It still retains some seats in councils around the country, and if it can not only hold those seats but gain some new ones, it may be able to regain some momentum.
Both the NPP and TSP appeal to similar demographics, but the Kaohsiung-based TSP has had more momentum on its side recently. Though the TSP is the older party, it was the NPP that did better in the last local elections.
Recently they have been roughly tied in opinion polling, with the NPP having slid significantly and the TSP showing new strength. While the NPP’s challenge is to prove it isn't a dying force, the TSP’s challenge is to score enough victories to show it is viable.
The few primaries held so far have shown that this time around the elections are going to be fiercely competitive and full of "Game of Thrones" level intrigue and surprises, and it’s just beginning!
Follow this column to be “in the know” on Taiwan politics and stay up-to-date on the major twists and turns, the key figures, and the strategic back-and-forth as the drama unfolds.
Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw), and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.