Image Source: CNBC
The Kuomintang (KMT) party had much to celebrate on November 26. Not only did its candidates win 13 of the 21 cities and counties in Taiwan’s 2022 midterm elections, but the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) captured only five seats, the fewest since its founding in 1986. President Tsai Ing-wen, who has achieved international acclaim in recent years for being a strong female leader and champion of democracy, stepped down as chairwoman of the DPP after disappointing results for her party. Perhaps even more newsworthy, Chiang Kai-shek’s great-grandson, 43-year-old Chiang Wan-an, won the seat of Taipei’s mayorship–one of the most coveted positions in Taiwanese politics and a historical predictor of future presidential candidates.
For those of us watching from the United States, it can be easy to interpret the KMT’s victories as a return to pro-China politics among Taiwanese voters. After all, when Chiang Kai-shek led the KMT retreat to Taiwan in 1949, it had every intention of reclaiming the mainland from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since Taiwan ended martial law and transformed into a democracy in the 1990s, the KMT, or Nationalist Party, has traditionally favored friendlier ties with the mainland, often on the basis of economic growth. Contrastingly, championing the nationalist Taiwanese identity, the opposition DPP has been more vocal about ambitions for independence.
However, the results of Taiwan’s 2022 midterm elections had very little to do with cross-Strait relations and prospects for either reunification or independence. Instead, the “blue wave” – that is, the overwhelming victory of candidates whose ideologies lean most similarly toward that of the KMT’s, in contrast with the DPP’s “green” – likely reflected dissatisfaction with DPP rule on domestic issues.
For example, although the island received international praise for its handling of the pandemic, the Taiwanese populace has not commended the DPP’s COVID-era actions with similar sentiments. From blocking specific vaccines and delaying the lowering of COVID diagnosis standards to excessively expanding political power through infringements on freedom of speech, people have grown dissatisfied with the governing party. The pandemic has also led to high inflation, rising housing prices, and general economic stagnation. In fact, 42.6% of the Taiwanese public gave its government a non-passing score on its pandemic response.
Others have complained that the DPP has become all talk and no bite. Though many voters found solace in the party’s championing of democratic values and progressive ideals in prior elections, the lives of everyday people have not appeared to improve. With an increasing gap between the rich and the poor and measly job prospects, especially for younger generations, people have become disillusioned with the DPP. As a result, turnout at this year’s midterm elections was extremely low at 58.97 percent – a referendum seeking to lower the voting age from 20 to 18 did not even reach enough votes to pass.
Similarly, the DPP’s fear-mongering tactics about CCP threats have become less effective. When Tsai Ing-wen ran for re-election in 2020, CCP authorities were violently cracking down on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow (今日香港，明日台灣),” she had chanted as part of her campaign. Before the pandemic and its inevitable economic consequences, people rallied behind Tsai’s democratic fervor; she eventually won by a historic landslide with 57.1% of the vote.
Today, the political landscape is very different, and voters in Taiwan are seeking a fresh perspective on possibilities for their island’s future. The DPP’s slogan “Resist China, Protect Taiwan (抗中保台)” has not struck the same chord. Two days before the election, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu affirmed that the “China factor” has become less of an issue in Taiwanese politics, explaining that, though still frequent, mainland meddling in Taiwanese elections has decreased in recent years and that the PRC is likely more concerned with its own domestic issues.
Indeed, Taiwanese citizens have been living under threat of CCP invasion for nearly 70 years; not every election is a reflection of international relations. While CCP incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) have increased considerably in recent months, Taiwanese voters turned out for the party that has been less aggressive about achieving internationally-recognized independence, especially when the island already functions independently in virtually every aspect but name. That the recently victorious party has historically been “friendlier” with the CCP is simply coincidental. Just like elections in the United States and elsewhere, voters’ choices are not binary and should not be understood as such.
US political analysts, China watchers, and government officials would be remiss to misinterpret these midterm election results as a step back for Taiwan’s stiffening China policy, even if KMT victories were the CCP’s preferred outcome (and actually lead to a temporary stabilizing of cross-Strait relations). Perhaps such anxieties can wait for the next presidential election in 2024.