Alexa
  • Directory of Taiwan

What international media will get horribly wrong about Taiwan's local elections

Many in international media will also mistakenly speculate local election results have implications for 2024

  9331
What international media will get horribly wrong about Taiwan's local elections

KMT election rally promoting northern Taiwan candidates.

(CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — Brace yourself for headlines like “Pro-China party wins Taiwan elections,” “Taiwan voters rebuke pro-independence ruling party” and “After Pelosi visit, Taiwan voters vote to decrease tensions with China” in the international media next week. Some articles will speculate on the significance of these elections in the national elections in 2024.

Of course, there will be articles trying to somehow tie the Pelosi trip and China’s war games to the election. China will be mentioned often, and almost none will show any clue that Taiwan existed prior to 1949.

Probably at least one clueless pundit will extrapolate that this year’s big KMT win (and it will likely be big) means the KMT will sweep to power in 2024, and then speculate wildly on what that might mean for U.S.-China relations. All of it will be utter nonsense.

It will partly be President Tsai's fault

For much of it, the blame will lie with Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chair Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her campaign team for leaning in so heavily on “resist China, protect Taiwan” (抗中保台). Worse, much of this terrible press will undermine Taiwan in public opinion overseas and undercut some of the hard work that President Tsai, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), and their diplomats have done so effectively to boost Taiwan’s standing in the world.

In past elections, the China threat played little to no role in local elections. In national elections, however, slogans like “resist China, protect Taiwan” are meaningful and valuable.

“Resist China, protect Taiwan” gives you some idea of the priorities and guiding philosophy of your legislator when they debate national security bills, and how the president will choose her cabinet and make decisions regarding relations with China, national defense, and foreign policy. In local elections, it’s meaningless: What possible help is it to city council members or the mayor when they debate funding for sewage system maintenance or building a new playground?

There is no indication campaigning on this helped the DPP, outside of maybe rallying a few in the base. Taiwanese voters see through it for what it is: Empty sloganeering and nationalistic grandstanding by a party that is desperate in the face of defeat.

It did not have to be this way. The DPP could have coupled it with adding concrete proposals on preparing communities, training of key personnel, hardening of key infrastructure, and improving air raid shelters, all of which are in the domain of local governments. They could, and should, have done this — but they did not (explored in depth in this previous column).

Why the KMT wins local elections

A big KMT win in this election would not be a rejection of President Tsai’s handling of China, or an indication of wanting better ties with China, or anything else related to foreign policy or national security. The president’s approval ratings are very high for someone in office for six years and her stances on China remain broadly popular (election law does not allow us to cite specific poll numbers on the eve of an election, but you can look them up).

The KMT was simply very well placed coming into this election. The DPP’s best candidates were term-limited out, and a plagiarism scandal damaged them in Taoyuan and Hsinchu.

By contrast, the KMT came into this election with almost all of their candidates one-term incumbents able to run again, in a country that often re-elects incumbents. Even better for the KMT, they came into this election already holding twice as many top posts as the DPP, forcing the DPP to run new candidates without much name recognition against those KMT incumbents.

The KMT also generally does better than the DPP in local elections, with the DPP only once having won more top posts than the KMT this century. There is a very good reason for this.

The KMT minor league system

The KMT has a strong local system for building candidates. They start by utterly dominating the lowest rung of the ladder, the neighborhood borough chiefs.

From the best of those, they choose city council candidates, and the best from them move up to mayor, county commissioner or legislator. It’s very much like in professional sports, which use lower divisions, minor leagues, or college teams to weed out the wheat from the chaff.

In spite of the DPP claiming they are going to seriously invest in this to upset KMT’s dominance, the fact is they really have not. The DPP recruits from civil society, academia and so forth, who can be very hit-or-miss as candidates, and few have built up their experience from the ground up like many of the KMT candidates (though the KMT does sometimes pluck candidates from academia as well).

Almost all the city councils are run by the KMT, even in pan-green (pro-DPP) cities like Kaohsiung. The KMT usually wins at the local level because they have a well-oiled machine for doing just that, and the DPP does not.

In other words, there is no big lesson to be learned from this election. Pelosi, the China threat, and national sovereignty have absolutely nothing to do with it.

Local elections have little impact on national elections

Similarly, these local elections do not carry many implications for the 2024 national elections, at least not in the sense that some foreign journalists and pundits might assume. The main impact will be on how viable the public sees the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) as a serious opposition party, which I wrote on previously, but that has nothing to do with the China threat.

The DPP won national elections in 2016 and 2020 in landslides. Sandwiched between those was a KMT landslide win in local elections in 2018.

The national elections are very different than local elections. In Taiwan, the China threat, national sovereignty and national identity are front and center. Those issues totally dominate.

In 2014, hundreds of thousands of people came out into the streets to express their support for a group of protestors who occupied the legislature in opposition to a KMT-sponsored bill aiming to create free trade in services with China that would have opened the gates wide open for Chinese influence in Taiwan. This sparked the Sunflower Movement, which emphasized Taiwanese identity, sovereignty, and even cultural pride.

This caused a shift in public opinion toward the DPP, which shared these values, and against the KMT, which espouses a One China ideology, supports the 1992 Consensus, and had been growing much closer to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since then, China’s actions have only pushed the Taiwanese mainstream closer to the DPP.

Xi Jinping has unintentionally been Taiwanese identity's biggest promoter

Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping has since then, among other things, tied the 1992 Consensus to One Country Two Systems, launched the brutal crackdown in Hong Kong, ratcheted up international bullying of Taiwan, increased efforts to undermine Taiwanese democracy, unilaterally changed the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, repeatedly made clear that the use of force against Taiwan will happen eventually if “reunification” does not occur, carried out mass live-fire war games surrounding Taiwan and shot missiles over Taipei. Oh, and cut off ties with Taiwan, used trade as economic warfare, wrongfully imprisoned Taiwanese citizens and cracked down on its own citizens while committing genocide in East Turkestan (Xinjiang), all of which underscored why Taiwanese emphatically do not want to be ruled by the CCP.

If the KMT does well in 2024, it will be because they have somehow managed to regain the Taiwanese people’s trust that they will defend the nation, protect Taiwan’s way of life and stand up to China. It will not have the slightest connection to this year’s local elections.

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. Follow him on Twitter: @donovan_smith.