After the defeat of Taiwan’s ruling party, the focus shifts to the presidential election

Taiwan’s ruling party the presidential election: After the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was thrashed in local elections on Saturday, attention is turning to Taiwan’s next presidential election in 2024, with President Tsai Ing-decision wen’s to focus on China backfiring with voters.

The main opposition party the Kuomintang, or KMT, romped to victory in the mayoral and county elections, winning 13 of the 21 seats up for grabs, including the wealthy and cosmopolitan capital Taipei, in line with expectations.

None of those elected have direct say in policy in China. The KMT traditionally favors close ties with China but strongly denies being pro-Beijing. It had been on the back foot since 2020’s presidential election loss, and also suffered a blow last December after four referendums it had championed as a show of no confidence in the government failed.

Speaking to reporters late on Saturday at party headquarters, its chairman Eric Chu said the KMT understood that only by uniting could it win. “Taiwan’s people have given us an opportunity,” he said. “Being selfless is the only chance that the KMT could win the 2024 election.” Tsai resigned as DPP chairwoman following the party’s worst showing in its history, and the party now has only five mayors or county chiefs.

Taiwan's ruling party

She had framed the vote as a show of defiance to China’s rising bellicosity, particularly after it held war games near the island in August and President Xi Jinping, who has vowed to bring Taiwan under Chinese control, was elected to an unprecedented third term last month. Tsai’s strategy, however, failed to mobilise voters, who disconnected geopolitics from local elections, which traditionally focus on issues ranging from crime to pollution.

On Saturday, turnout was at an all-time low of 59% in Taiwan’s six most populous cities, compared to an overall figure of around 75% in 2020. China has been preoccupied with internal issues, including unrest related to its zero-COVID policy. Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu stated last week that Taiwan was seeing less Chinese interference in the run-up to local elections, possibly as a result of China’s own domestic problems and efforts to improve its international image.

Lin Hsi-Yao, Secretary-General of the DPP, told reporters that the party will conduct a “review” of what went wrong, but declined to comment directly on their strategy of making the China issue so important. The KMT had centered its campaign on issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen an increase in cases this year, and whether the government preferred a local vaccine over imported ones.

In a Sunday editorial, Taiwan’s pro-DPP Liberty Times warned that using “abstract political ideas” to motivate voters in local elections was more difficult, and that the DPP could face distracting splits in deciding its 2024 presidential candidate.”Tsai Ing-wen’s second term is half over, and the succession issue may breed internal contradictions, undermining the combat effectiveness of having all guns pointing outwards.”

Vice President William Lai, who was a high-profile campaigner for the local elections and was considered the most likely candidate for 2024 by party sources, apologized on his Facebook page on Saturday for the poor performance but did not address his future.

Nonetheless, the DPP recovered from a similar defeat in the 2018 local elections to win a landslide in the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2020, after successfully portraying a vote for the KMT as a vote for China in the aftermath of a bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.

The KMT rejects accusations that it will sell Taiwan to China or is not committed to democracy but accuses the DPP of deliberately inflating tensions with Beijing for political gain. The DPP denies this and Tsai has repeatedly offered to hold talks with China, which have been rejected as Beijing views her as a separatist.

“The KMT’s landslide victory doesn’t mean a pro-Beijing political atmosphere in Taiwan is being shaped. The KMT is not a pro-Beijing party, either,” said Huang Kwei-bo, an associate professor of diplomacy at Taipei’s National Chengchi University and a former KMT deputy secretary general.

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