Taiwanese voters head to the polls on Saturday for local elections that are likely to see a swing toward the opposition pro-China Kuomintang amid growing dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic and the economy.
Some also believe that Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen has increased tensions with Beijing by emphasizing defense of the island’s democracy and sovereignty.
Recent opinion polls show that the majority of county, municipal and provincial council seats, as well as the posts of magistrates, mayors and village heads could go to the KMT, in an apparent rejection of the ruling DPP’s focus on defending the island against growing Chinese aggression . based on recent opinion polls from Channel News Asia and other media.
Political opinion tracker DailyView has predicted that the Kuomintang could win 15 of the 22 mayor and district judge seats, while the ruling party’s candidates could win just five, the report said.
The issues at stake in the weekend’s elections are more local than international, and by this argument the KMT typically outperforms the Progressive Democratic Party on this level.
“Based on the last three local and national elections, my theory is that a new voting bloc formed in Taiwan after the 2014 sunflower movement, which I call the ‘conservative safe choice,'” wrote columnist Courtney Donovan Smith in the Taiwan News from November 24th.
These voters support pro-Chinese candidates in local elections as a safe bet, believing they will be better administrators, but for the ruling DPP in national elections as a safe bet “because they are seen by those voters as more trustworthy and reliable at national level.” security and addressing the threat posed by China,” wrote Donovan Smith.
Better cities and neighborhoods
But while campaigners have asked candidates to sign a pledge to sign “no surrender” in the event of a Chinese invasion, the issues they are being asked about on the campaign trail have more to do with building better cities and better neighborhoods as the forges of future war heroes in defense of the island’s democratic way of life.
“These elections will make Taiwan and Taipei better,” DPP candidate and former health minister Chen Shih-chung told voters on the Taipei mayoral campaign trail. “It’s about striving for ways to move Taipei forward.”
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen gestures next to Chen Shih-chung, Taipei’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) mayoral candidate, during a campaign rally ahead of local elections in Taipei, Taiwan November 25, 2022. Credit: Reuters
KMT candidate Chiang Wan’an, the great-grandson of the late KMT president and authoritarian leader Chiang Kai-shek, suggested Chen for failing to deliver rapid tests or vaccines quickly enough in the city in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic .
“After the DPP became dominant, they took power and there is nothing they don’t dare,” Chiang said. “They never admit their mistakes when they make them, nor do they apologize or correct them.”
Independent candidate Hwang Shan-shan was more concerned with urban development, focusing on plans for a “Rive Gauche”-style cultural square on the banks of the Tamsui River.
The rhetoric is a far cry from the sense of existential threat and Beijing-backed disinformation campaigns that marked the 2020 presidential race between Tsai Ing-wen, who won on a platform defending Taiwan’s democracy, and the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu.
When DPP MP You Si-kun told voters that voting for the DPP would prevent “Xi Jinping from calling,” he was dismissed with a shrug by Taichung’s mayoral candidate Lu Hsiu-yen.
“Is he really that godlike?” she said with a smile.
However, there was still much military and strategic awareness among Taiwanese citizens who spoke to RFA ahead of the vote, and commentators said the shadow of China’s territorial claim to the island was always present to some degree.
“You can’t claim that Taiwan is part of mainland China,” a businessman who gave the surname Hsieh told RFA. “We have been independent for so long, and we the people must support Taiwan against the Chinese Communist Party.”
A breakfast shop owner, who gave the surname Wang, said they don’t want war but there may be little choice.
“If our young people have to become soldiers, the country will be ruined, but if we don’t defend our country, we will be bullied by others,” Wang said. “We won’t cause any problems, but neither are we afraid of it.”
A resident, who gave the nickname Vivian, said that China is always an important campaign issue.
“For some, yes,” she said. “It was always an issue for me.”
Peng Hwai-en, visiting associate professor of journalism at Taiwan’s Shih Hsin University, said President Tsai Ing-wen’s 2020 landslide victory was largely due to the city-wide crackdown on the 2019 Hong Kong protest movement that slashed promised freedoms lost “One Country, Two Systems” agreement, which Beijing also wants to accept from Taiwan.
“Two years ago, the issue of protecting Taiwan from China was very influential, especially because of what was happening in Hong Kong at the time,” Peng said.
“However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year has had some repercussions, mostly because young people want to serve in the armed forces,” he said.
Wu Chien-chung, an associate professor at Taipei Ocean University, said Taiwan has also seen a relative lack of Chinese propaganda or disinformation during the current election, leaving voters less to fight back.
“I have personally witnessed the power and mobilization capabilities of the Chinese Communist Party [back in 2020]but these … are local elections, and Beijing hasn’t put that much energy into it,” Wu said.
“These elections are mainly influenced by domestic political factors … and it’s more of a test of personal integrity than offensive-defensive sparring,” he said.
Taipei’s independent mayoral candidate Huang Shan-shan [center] poses with a basket full of “lucky vegetables” given to supporters during an election campaign at Huannan Market in Taipei, Taiwan, November 23, 2022. Photo credit: AFP
President Tsai, who won two presidential elections after vowing to protect Taiwan from China, was naturally keen to remind everyone that Beijing has repeatedly refused to refrain from using force to achieve what referred to it as “union”.
“This is the first election we have had since the 20th National Convention[der Kommunistischen Partei Chinas]had,” she told voters during Chen Shih-chung’s campaign. “Now the whole world is paying attention to Taiwan, which is on the frontline of freedom and democracy.” [oftheChineseCommunistParty”shetoldvotersonChenShih-chung’scampaign”NowthewholeworldispayingattentiontoTaiwanwhichisonthefrontlineoffreedomanddemocracy”
“It is also the most important link in the global semiconductor supply chain, and any actions and decisions we make here will affect how the world views Taiwan,” Tsai said.
Taiwan has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor was it part of the 73-year-old People’s Republic of China, and opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the island’s 23 million residents have no desire to relinquish their sovereignty or democratic way of life from Beijing to be governed.
She reminded voters that the KMT’s “overly pro-China line” was the reason it suffered a massive defeat by Tsai’s DPP in 2016, while “8.17 million Taiwanese showed their determination to defend freedom and democracy in the to defend the 2020 general election,” she said.
“We defended Taiwan’s democracy and didn’t let Taiwan become Hong Kong, and together we defended Taiwan from the pandemic — we didn’t let it become Wuhan either,” she said. “Taiwan is for the Taiwanese.”
More aggressive attitude
KMT MP Chen Yu-chen responded that while Tsai did not allow Taiwan to become a second Hong Kong or Wuhan, her opposition to Beijing’s political rhetoric turned it into a “gunpowder shop”.
“Though China may be to blame, the ruling party is failing to create a comfortable living and working environment and attract foreign investment,” Chen said.
“When the Kuomintang was in power, mainland Chinese came here to Taiwan, and every plane was packed with tourists,” he said. “Now they’re sending in military planes and we’re all talking about army recruitment and hiding in air-raid shelters.”
“If there is a war, a whole generation is lost,” Chen said, claiming that the KMT’s détente towards Beijing is the best way to maintain the status quo.
Wu Se-chih, a researcher at Taiwan’s Cross-Strait Policy Association, said the war preparations inevitably fed into local government election campaigns.
“Clashes in the Taiwan Strait could erupt at any time,” Wu said. “Local leaders are the commanders of the local civil defense corps, police, fire brigade and medical staff. Therefore, defending Taiwan against China has been discussed to some extent in the communities.”
US-based Chinese rights activist Zhou Fengsuo said he recalled visiting Taiwan to observe the 2020 presidential election and said he was impressed by the maturity of the island’s democracy during the current campaign season.
“This time, it’s clearly a very mature democratic system,” Zhou told RFA. “The Chinese Communist Party threat still casts a big shadow, even though it’s just local elections.”
“Taiwan’s democracy is precious and hard-won and even more defensible in the future,” he said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.