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  • Writer's pictureWei Azim Hung

DPP’s November 2022 Local Election Defeat

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

Executive summary: The DPP suffered its worst performance since it first partook in elections 36 years ago. The brief offers a survey of the strategies, significance, and results of the 9-in-1 local elections. Furthermore, what this means for the 2024 presidential elections.

On November 26th, Taiwan (formally known as the Republic of China) concluded its 9-in-1 elections (hereafter local elections) and the 2022 Taiwanese constitutional referendum, which sought to lower the voting age from 20 to 18. This election elected mayors, magistrates, county and city councilors, township mayors, township councilors, and chiefs of the local villages. The Kuomintang (KMT) emerged as the biggest winner securing 13 seats and dropping only one. On the other hand, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to say the least, failed to deliver the party's mandate, managing to scramble merely five seats. Additionally, the party lost both Taoyuan and Hsinchu, previously governed by DPP mayor Cheng Wen-tsan (鄭文燦) and Lin Chih-chien (林智堅). Meanwhile, this is the first time Ko Wen-je's (柯文哲) Taiwan People's Party (TPP) participated in local elections. Despite Ko's handpicked candidate Taipei deputy mayor Huang Shan-shan losing the mayoral race to KMT legislator Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安), TPP's legislator Kao Hung-an (高虹安) was able to make inroads in Hsinchu City, securing the TPP's first and only seat. Tainan’s race also fascinated political observers. Historically, a DPP stronghold, KMT city councilor and mayoral candidate Hsieh Lung-chieh (謝龍介) trailed only 5% behind DPP’s incumbent mayor Huang Wei-che (黃偉哲), surprising many due to DPP’s historical dominance in the city.

The turnout rate is relatively modest compared to the 2020 presidential election (74.9%), but substantial, nonetheless. Kinmen County had the lowest turnout rate (39.32%) among all cities and counties. Cities such as Nantou County (69.08%), Chiayi County (67.32%), Yunlin County (67.35%), Pingtung County (67.18%), Lienchiang County (72.99%), Taipei City (67.70%) had relatively decent turnout rates. Taoyuan City (59.46%), Taichung City (60.01%), Tainan City (58.68%), Kaohsiung City (58.61%), and Hsinchu County (58.98%) had modest turnout rates. In contrast to the 2018 local elections, both parties received fewer votes. In 2018, the DPP counted 5 million votes (4.74 million in 2022). Likewise, the KMT counted 6.5 million votes (5.7 million in 2022). Brian Hioe, an independent scholar and founder of Taiwan-based New Bloom Magazine, stated that a lack of (sense of) crisis and no major referendum (nuclear question, LGBT+, etc.) affected the turnout rate.

From the voting data available, neither party nor individual candidates have expanded from their traditional voting base. In other words, party campaigns failed to attract and mobilize swing votes. Furthermore, it would be faulty to translate the election results as public support for the KMT. At best, it should be seen as constituents being dissatisfied with DPP’s policy orientation during the elections and overall strategic failure to deliver on a variety of social issues such as housing justice despite enjoying majority in the Legislative Yuan. Other reasons suggested for the DPP's defeat include but not limited to the way it handled the pandemic, triads permeating the ranks of its leadership, the Medigen controversy (e.g., data manipulation), overconfidence and losing touch with young voters, impact of business shutdowns, unemployment, etcetera.

It is also necessary to underscore the election strategies implemented by both KMT and DPP. Both sides promised to disassociate from saliva wars (口水戰) and vowed to bring the election back to the policy realm. However, this has not been the case. According to Hioe, the lack of policy engagement is the result of KMT and DPP’s inability to distinguish their policies on a local level. Put it differently, the most salient contrast between the two parties pertains to the question of their historical stance, KMT being unificationist whereas the DPP being independence leaning. However, in local elections, this is less important and does not enter the equation as much.

Unsurprisingly, a central continuity from previous elections includes character assassination and slander. This is an effective strategy fully utilized by both parties, as it mounts an effective challenge not only on the candidate themselves, but it serves as an attack against the party's moral integrity for nominating such a candidate. For example, during the initial phases of Lin Chih-chien (林智堅)'s plagiarism scandal, the DPP fully backed the former Hsinchu mayor to the extent that it was willing to defy and challenge Taiwan's oldest and most prestigious academic institution, National Taiwan University. Eventually, public pressure forced the DPP to nudge Lin to withdraw his candidacy, replacing him with Cheng Yun-peng (鄭運鵬). The DPP was late in realizing that regardless of who the party nominates for the mayoral race, their voters would still vote by default due to ideological preferences. But this was not necessarily the case for swing voters. After all, the damage has already been done, and the redress came too late. Similarly, the DPP also unsuccessfully mounted a series of counter attacks against TPP's Kao Hung-an, accusing her of elitism, misappropriating funds, embezzlement, infringement of intellectual property rights, corruption, and so on.

But the most iconic (and ironic) representation of the 2022 local election is the lack of a unifying election theme from either party; the DPP lagged further than the KMT on this issue. Amateurs might suggest that the KMT and DPP campaigned on platforms of moral integrity, anti-corruption, economic growth or national security, which is true to a degree. However, there has been no rallying effect spreading to other cities. One could even go as far as to suggest that running candidates are not sold on party discourses and framing either.

International media such as Reuters and CNN also caught up with DPP's attempt at elevating the local elections to a national level vis-à-vis national security. For example, Reuters headlined their article with "China threat bet fails to win votes" and CNN "local elections billed as a message for China and the world". Despite Tsai’s failure to garner votes in the local elections, one should not jump conclusions and dismiss the utility of the slogan “opposing China and defending Taiwan” (抗中保台) in future elections. According to Lev Nachman, associate professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, although the anti-China framing was utilized inconsistently on the local level and often in the wrong setting. However, there is still currency and strength on a national level. Notwithstanding the DPP’s “defeat”, Nachman suggested that the impact of the local elections is limited to the national level.


All eyes on 2024: Where do we go from here?

Overall, Taiwanese voters have overwhelmingly rejected the DPP. The party suffered its worst performance since it first partook in elections 36 years ago. Specifically, voters refused to accept the DPP’s discourse and framing of the local elections. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), on many occasions has framed the elections on the grounds of “opposing China and defending Taiwan” (抗中保台) or defending patriotism and integrity while she campaigned for DPP candidates. But as results have indicated, voters are more concerned with local issues.

During the 2020 presidential election, Tsai was able to capitalize on China’s intimidation in selling protection rackets. Unfortunately, this time around, the DPP was out of touch, misperceived voter concerns and propelled itself into a strategic blunder. Tsai subsequently resigned as party chairwoman, she said “I must shoulder all the responsibility”. Moreover, “Faced with a result like this, there are many areas that we must deeply review,” she added. Despite DPP’s heavy loss on the city/county level, it is worth highlighting that the party gained 39 (238 --> 277) seats on the district councilor level, whereas KMT lost 27 seats (394 --> 367). This contradiction suggests that dissatisfaction with the party on the city level is interpreted differently on the local level.

With the 16th President and Vice President election of the Republic of China (Taiwan) right around the corner (in 13 months), prospective candidates are gearing up their potential campaign teams. Both parties are undergoing radical internal lobbying and restructuring based on the outcome of the local elections. For instance, after President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) stepped down as chairwoman, Vice President Lai Ching-te (賴淸德) expressed interest in running for DPP chairmanship. The chairmanship would effectively delegate him a large swath of control over the nomination process. Other candidates from the DPP worth paying attention to include former Taoyuan mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, former Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), former Minister of Transportation and Communications, and Taichung mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍).

On KMT's side, former legislator Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康) and former Taipei councilor Lo Chih-chiang (羅智強) have expressed interest in running for the presidency. Competitive candidate to keep an eye on includes former New Taipei and Taoyuan Mayor, Eric Chu (朱立倫), former legislator and Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), and incumbent New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜). The exiting mayor and chairperson of TPP, Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) has also publicly expressed interest in running for the presidency. Tycoon and billionaire Terry Gou (郭台銘) could potentially join hands with Ko.

Finally, there have been flawed takes misassigning the causality for the local elections and impact on the upcoming presidential elections. Primarily, the conflation of local and national issues has been problematic as a campaign strategy. Equally, it suffers as an unreliable indicator measuring the success of either party for 2024. That is, punishing the DPP is not the equivalence of wholesale supporting the KMT. Unsurprisingly, Zhu Fenglian (朱鳳蓮), spokeswoman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said, "The results reflected the public’s desire for “peace, stability, and a better life". But as Christina Lai, Associate Fellow at Academia Sinica argues, neither the KMT nor DPP should be ruled out for the 2024 presidential race, as the voting dynamic is different from local elections. Moreover, if KMT wants to be competitive, it needs to work on reshaping its narrative and overcome public’s perception of its pro-Beijing stance. The KMT needs to redefine its message, such as departing from the 1992 consensus, and platform, to align with mainstream Taiwanese preference for the status quo. Likewise, the DPP must take lessons from the local elections and readjust its campaign platform, specifically on its domestic reform agenda, which has failed.

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