The result of last week’s elections in Taiwan places both major parties, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), at the crossroads.
Both hope to capture the presidency in 2024, when the incumbent, Pres. Tsai Ing-wen completes two full terms in office.
Tsai was elected in 2016 after defeating the KMT candidate, Eric Chu, then the popular mayor of New Taipei City for eight years, after serving as legislator and magistrate for Taoyuan County, now a bustling metropolis where the international airport is.
Although the KMT was a clear winner in the last local elections, this does not necessarily translate into easy sailing come 2024.
Personalities and local issues take center stage during their mid-term elections. Foreign policy and macro-economic issues determine the presidential elections.
In 2018, the KMT also won resoundingly in the major cities and counties, where the folksy Han Kuo-yu stole Kaohsiung from long-time DPP dominance, as well as another major city, Taichung.
Yet when the KMT fielded Han against Tsai in 2020, the latter was re-elected resoundingly.
In 2016, the highly accomplished Eric Chu, young by Taiwan standards at 55, was chosen by the KMT to succeed then incumbent Pres. Ma Ying-jeou who served two full terms.
DPP on the other hand, fielded lawyer and economist Tsai Ing-wen who was more a technocrat than a politician, having distinguished herself in trade negotiations.
She ran against Ma in 2012, but lost yet redeemed herself four years later to capture the presidency.
But the DPP prepared well, and organized more young voters into its fold, promising a more independent stance vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China, while the KMT was still dominated by a hierarchy of super-senior citizens who were out of touch with the electorate’s changing mood.
In the local elections of 2018, midway through Pres. Tsai’s first term, the KMT regained its local strength, and the newly-elected Kaohsiung Mayor Han was groomed for the presidency.
However, his own lackluster performance in Kaohsiung, coupled with the protests in Hong Kong which was met by China’s repressive tactics against these, got Taiwanese voters to go strongly for the DPP and re-elected Tsai with an overwhelming majority.
As Tsai reaches her lame-duck years (Taiwanese presidents serve for a term of four years, with one re-election, similar to the US of A), and with her party suffering a rout in the mid-terms held last Saturday, the KMT’s hopes of recapturing the presidency in 2024 have been rekindled, its choice of Eric Chu as new chair proving to be a wise foil to previously fossilized imagery.
But it is how the two parties and their presidential candidates position themselves vis-à-vis the People’s Republic under Xi Jin-ping and the state of the economy in a post-pandemic yet turbulent international situation, that is likely to determine Taiwan’s politics.
A blue wave (KMT’s color) trounced the DPP greens in major cities, but especially felt was KMT’s victory in the capital Taipei, where it fielded 43-year old Chiang Wan-an, supposedly a great-grandson of strongman Chiang Kai-shek who captured Taiwan after his defeat at the hands of the Communists led by Mao Zedong in the mainland.
Victory in key areas such as Taichung, New Taipei, Taoyuan and Keelung re-invigorated the Kuomintang.
Chiang prevailed over the popular ex-health minister Chen Shih-chung of the DPP and the third force Taiwan People’s Party candidate, who was supported by the incumbent mayor, Ko Wen-je, who himself has moist eyes for the presidency.
TPP, while it lost the big apple, however, won in another populous manufacturing center, Hsinchu, and is likely to be a contributory force to whoever it chooses to support for the presidency in 2024, assuming of course, that Mayor Ko will not himself run.
Both the DPP and the KMT will have to map out their strategy for 2024 very carefully, especially in choosing who to field for president.
Incumbent Vice-President William Lai, the charismatic former mayor of Tainan who delivered the city once more to the DPP, does not seem to be favored by the incumbent Tsai.
But the president herself resigned as party chair after the humiliating defeat last Saturday. Vice-president Lai will have to marshal enough support from party bigwigs to be nominated as candidate in 2024.
Will the KMT chairman, Eric Chu, try once more for the presidency?
Key to garnering electoral support will be how he and the KMT will position themselves on foreign policy, particularly the “independence” from PRC.
Can the DPP, whoever it finally chooses as its presidential candidate, rise from its stunning local loss in 2022? Again, how the external political and economic environment impacts on Taiwan will be a determining factor.
The Taiwanese, no matter how many now try to distinguish themselves from their mainland “cousins,” are a very pragmatic people, more drawn to issues of economic well-being when it comes to their politics.
Both the Kuomintang and the DPP find themselves at a political crossroad.
And whichever captures the presidency in 2024 will impact greatly on the peace and stability of our region.
Reacting to Taiwan’s recent elections where its nemesis, the DPP , performed badly, the PRC stated that “the results revealed that mainstream public opinion in the island is for peace, stability and a good life.”
Unless accidents of fate intervene, we should read China’s statement with a sigh of relief —Xi is on wait-and-see mode.