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Takeaways from Taiwan's local elections

True, elections were disastrous for the DPP, but there is more to the story

Takeaways from Taiwan's local elections

Victorious KMT Taipei mayor-elect Chiang Wan-an thanks voters for their support

(CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — With the Chiayi City race delayed to December, of the 21 executive posts contested in this year’s 9-in-1 elections, the Kuomintang (KMT) took 13, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) five, independents two, and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) one. The KMT is likely to win Chiayi City, which would bring their total to 14, which is what they had coming into the race.

However, as we’ll see, there are some nuances at the lower levels of the election, this is still widely regarded as a win for the KMT and party Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫) because crucially they won four of the “big six” special municipalities, including the capital. On the DPP side, this is the worst result since the party was formed, never having dropped below six before.

In a pre-election column with predictions, 19 of the 21 turned out to be correct by party, getting only Keelung and Kinmen wrong — though some races that had been called as close turned out not to be. Still, the accuracy turned out even better than I’d hoped for.

In previous pre-election columns, we explored how the KMT was very well positioned in this election and how local elections have traditionally favored their party, as well as some strategic missteps by the DPP. This column will focus on interesting trends and insights to be gleaned from the election results.

Same strategy, very different results

Interestingly, both KMT Chair Eric Chu and then DPP Chair Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) followed a strategy of largely relying on top-down appointments for top executive candidates over the traditionally more common open primaries. This strategy worked very well for Chu, as he was able to put in place candidates that are largely viewed as moderate and electable rather than firebrands from the ideological deep-blue wing of the party.

It is hard to say if it was a strategic mistake for Tsai or not. In the one place the DPP did hold a primary — Pingtung — the primary battle was brutal and may have contributed to the party only barely holding on to the county.

On the other hand, many argued that Tsai and the election committee dictating the party’s nominees was undemocratic, and it may have rubbed some voters the wrong way in a party that has “democratic” in the name. Chu faced the same accusations, but expectations put on the KMT are often lower.

And in fact, the lack of transparency in the nomination process hurt the KMT. The party was split in Miaoli, Penghu and Kinmen by defecting KMT members challenging the official party candidate and the KMT lost all three as a result.

But at the end of the day, Chu is beaming with his characteristic grin. Losing those three minor counties was more than offset by taking back Taipei, Taoyuan and Keelung. Tsai resigned as the party chair who led the party to the worst defeat in their history in local elections.

DPP did a little better in downstream races

The DPP did a bit better in downstream races, however, picking up a slightly higher percentage in city and county council races. Historically, the KMT has dominated at this level, often allied with pan-blue independents, but the DPP is getting closer.

The DPP won two councils outright, and might be able to work with pan-green-friendly independents to win a few more council speakerships. The speaker races haven’t yet been held, though, so it will be interesting to watch if they can pick up a few more.

Pan-blue candidates can still get away with murder

This election confirmed that voters continue hold DPP candidates to a higher standard than KMT or pan-blue candidates. The DPP was badly damaged by plagiarism scandals that probably cost them the north.

Meanwhile, the KMT’s candidate in Ilan is on trial for alleged corruption, several candidates are known to be from families with criminal backgrounds via the KMT patronage factions and one KMT defector in Miaoli literally did time for involvement in a murder among a litany of crimes. Plagiarism pales in comparison.

In the latest My-Formosa poll a question was asked about which party engaged in the most campaign attacks and smears, and by a wide margin, respondents blamed the DPP. Frankly speaking, after a review of pan-blue and pan-green media, I found that all the candidates in the major races were engaging in this, and all the major parties were doing it in roughly equal measure.

Independent voters hold the DPP to a higher standard because of their more recent origins as the party of reform and change (the KMT’s origins are as well, but over 100 years ago before they came to Taiwan). When DPP candidates are caught in a scandal, many voters are disgusted, but when their KMT counterparts are, many voters look the other way.

In this election, Tsai and the DPP knew there were potential problems beforehand. They held on to their Taoyuan candidate (and former Hsinchu mayor) Lin Chih-chien (林智堅) for far too long until he finally dropped out over his multiple plagiarism scandals, exposing his very poor judgment. They should have known that the public is less tolerant of DPP candidates, and it probably cost them Taoyuan, Hsinchu City and possibly Keelung as well.

Small parties generally did badly

The New Power Party (NPP) saw the number of council seats they controlled plunge from 16 to only six, including their entire five-member Taipei caucus wiped out. Their county commissioner candidates also all lost. Unless they get some inspired new leadership, the future of the once-promising party looks grim.

The TPP had set the goal to try and be able to win at least three seats in every city and county, which would allow them to form a caucus, but only succeeded in doing so in Taipei, where they won four seats. Of the 90 candidates they ran, only 14 won.

The TPP did get one big win by taking Hsinchu City mayor, which may have been an existential race for them, but failed in all their other top-level races.

The once-significant Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) won seats, with three of their five candidates winning. The also once-significant New Party (NP) only won one, and the People’s First Party (PFP), which at one time was a major party, won only two.

Women won big

Another strategy that Chu followed was to lean in heavily into promoting women candidates, running 10 out of 22 executive post races compared to only five on the DPP side. Assuming that the KMT wins in Chiayi City, then eight of their female candidates will have won, compared to just one in the DPP and another from the TPP, a party that actually ran a majority female candidates at the top level.

Female electability also played out at the city and county council levels. Even though only one-third of the candidates were women, they won 63% of their races compared to only 50% for men.

In total, women won a record 38% in total of all the councilor seats, but if the Chinese offshore island counties of Kinmen and Lienchang (Matzu) are excluded, it’s over 40% on the Taiwan mainland. Taiwan’s legislature and local government heads (when inaugurated on December 25) are also well over 40% women.

I expect that in the next two election cycles women will reach approximate gender parity, or even slightly exceed it. This trend has been accelerating this century, something that Tsai and the DPP would have done well to heed this election cycle.

It also appears that younger voters are moving away from the DPP, but that will be explored in a future column.

Correction: This column was updated to correct the number of seats won by the PFP.

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 ( and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. Follow him on Twitter: @donovan_smith.