Politics & Law

KMT solidifies power at municipal level

30 November, 2022

With decisive wins in Taiwan’s municipal elections, the KMT has demonstrated its continued power at the local level. However, a deeper analysis reveals a more nuanced picture and does not imply rising support at the national level.

By Brian Hioe

Source: Central Election Commission

In commentary on the outcome of the 2022 elections to date, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) losses at the municipal level have been honed in on as the primary metric of its defeat. Namely, the DPP only won five of Taiwan’s 22 municipalities, which is down from its previous low of six in 2018.

Other metrics show a more even split between the pan-Green and pan-Blue camps. 367 Kuomintang (KMT) city or county council candidates won office, as compared to the DPP’s 277 victorious city or county council candidates. Around 5,700,000 voted for the KMT while 4,740,000 voted for the DPP. The DPP’s lower number of victorious city councilors is balanced out by the victory of candidates from pan-Green third parties, such as the New Power Party and Taiwan Statebuilding Party, as well as pan-Green independents, though Ko Wen-je’s Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) also gained 14 city or county councilor seats.

The results may surprise in terms of the KMT’s weakness on the national level. The KMT has suffered successive defeats over the past decade, leading to much soul-searching for a party that had to adjust to becoming a political opposition for the first time in its history. Events such as the 2016 election showed that the KMT had lost the support of a generation of Taiwanese young people, due to its pro-China image.

At the same time, the results are less surprising in consideration of the fact that the KMT has historically performed better in local nine-in-one elections. This was also the case in 2018, the last major victory for the KMT, which was also a local election year. KMT mobilization networks and local patronage networks have existed for decades, going back to the authoritarian era, making it harder for the DPP to win when it comes to local elections.

It is thought that the election outcome will not necessarily impact the likely outcome of the 2024 presidential elections. But the results should lead to some rethinking on the part of the DPP.

The DPP benefits in presidential and legislative elections from the KMT’s pro-China image and its inability to turn around this image in past years. However, whether in 2018 or 2022, voters have successively punished the DPP over its weakness on domestic issues, such as sluggish economic growth.

Taiwanese local elections are, first and foremost, about local issues, such as low salaries, long working hours, unaffordable housing, ageing population, and declining birthrate. Clearly, the DPP is having trouble winning over voters on this front.

Though more attention has gone to the DPP’s failure to win mayoral seats, the results of the city and county council elections are also significant. Namely, the DPP held onto its traditional territories in southern Taiwan, while losing traditional pan-Blue territories that it had captured in past years, such as Taoyuan, Keelung, and Hsinchu.

In particular, the KMT has hoped to make inroads into southern Taiwan strongholds of the DPP after the unexpected victory of Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu in 2018. This later paved the path for Han’s 2020 presidential run. But while the KMT was not successful, the election results led to the DPP failing to hold the majority in the city councils for Tainan and Kaohsiung. This may indicate that the pan-Blue camp’s strength in southern Taiwan still cannot be dismissed. Consequently, the DPP may have to take more steps to consolidate its control over its traditional southern base, so as to avoid southern Taiwanese cities perceiving the DPP as taking support from southern Taiwan for granted.

Otherwise, the overall calculus for pan-Green versus pan-Blue politics will have to be adjusted in light of the TPP’s strong performance. While its Taipei mayoral candidate, former deputy mayor Huang Shan-shan, was defeated, she pulled in 342,141 votes. Huang’s political career will likely continue and her position in the party has been strengthened, with party chair Ko Wen-je soon set to vacate his position as Taipei mayor.

In spite of seeing much controversy in the course of her run over everything from infidelity to corruption and plagiarism, TPP legislator Ann Kao also won the mayorship of Hsinchu. This marks the first time that the TPP has controlled the mayorship of any city outside of Taipei. While, by contrast, legislator Lai Hsiang-lin’s campaign in Taoyuan failed to gain significant ground, Kao and Huang’s positions in the party are strengthened at a time in which the TPP may have to transition away from its dominance by the central figure of Ko Wen-je if it hopes to have long-term viability.

It is generally expected that the TPP’s founder, Ko, has presidential ambitions and that he founded the party in preparation for a presidential run. Founding a political party may be a way to build up the mobilisation network that Ko lacks, as an independent that originally won Taipei mayorship in 2014 with the backing of the pan-Green camp.

Regardless of Ko’s future plans, the TPP is put in a good position to field a slate of candidates for the legislature in 2024. Though prominent members of the KMT such as media commentator Jaw Shaw-kong have proposed an alliance between the TPP and KMT as fellow pan-Blue parties, that Ko probably intends to run for president makes it more likely that the TPP will have a directly competitive relationship with the KMT in the next round of elections. At the same time, the TPP may face questions about whether to maintain its current branding as a light blue political party that is not as hardline on cross-strait issues as the KMT or whether to pivot towards trying to attract support from deep blues, with Ko raising eyebrows with recent proposals such as constructing a bridge between Xiamen and Kinmen.

Despite the wave of pan-Green third parties that entered politics after the Sunflower Movement, pan-Green third parties such as the TSP and NPP have not done as well as the TPP, with the NPP winning six seats and the TSP two seats. The TSP avoids direct confrontation with the DPP as a deliberate strategy, sometimes running with the backing of pan-Green politicians. But despite running a large number of city and county councilor candidates, the NPP remains outpaced by the TPP. The role played by such pan-Green third parties may be primarily in terms of discourse or advocacy, in being able to voice more pro-independence political positions that the DPP would find inconvenient to voice.

The most direct impact of the 2022 elections on the 2024 elections, which will take place thirteen months from now in January 2024, may be with regards to the line-up of presidential candidates. This is especially so in the case of the KMT.

New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi is put in a leading position to be the KMT’s presidential candidate given his significant victory, while Taichung mayor Lu Shiow-yen has also been touted as a possibility in light of her strong performance. But it is possible that the KMT will see in-fighting over the issue, with previous contenders such as current chair Eric Chu, FoxConn founder Terry Gou, and former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu among those rumored to want to throw their hats into the race. It is still too early to tell who the KMT’s presidential candidate for 2024 will be, but one can expect political jockeying in the next year to be intense.

Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom

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