The real significance of Taiwan’s ‘9-in-1’ elections
8 Dec 2022|

Taiwanese voters went to the polls on 26 November in what are called ‘9-in-1’ elections for thousands of local councillors, county heads and city mayors. The results give a sense of the mood of the electorate and party dynamics ahead of the presidential and legislative elections to be held in January 2024.

This year, the Democratic Progressive Party, which has a legislative majority and holds the presidency with Tsai Ing-wen, had a bad night. The DPP actually gained local council seats overall, but of the 22 county heads and city mayors, the DPP won only five, with 13 going to the opposition Kuomintang, two to independents, one to the Taiwan People’s Party. Chiayi county is to be re-run after the death of a candidate during the campaign. The outcome was enough for Tsai to resign as party chair, as has been the practice in Taiwan following a party’s poor electoral showing.

The contest for the mayorship of the capital Taipei was among the notable campaigns. It was won by Chiang Wan-an, who is the illegitimate great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek. His family story recalls the lurid elite politics of mid-20th-century Republican China. His grandmother, Chang Yaruo, had an affair with Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek’s son and later president of Taiwan, and in 1942 gave birth to twin boys, Hsiao-chi and Hsiao-yen, who is Chiang Wan-an’s father. Chang Yaruo died suspiciously at the age of 29 when the boys were five months old. They fled with Yaruo’s family to Taiwan in 1949 with the KMT exodus and became successful members of the KMT elite in the authoritarian period under Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo. Chiang Hsiao-yen was foreign minister in the 1990s and publicly claimed his identity as Chiang Ching-kuo’s son in the 2000s, making his son Wan-an one of the heirs to the Chiang name.

Chiang Wan-an was elected to the national legislature in 2016 when he was just 38, and his family story added frisson to his Taipei mayoral campaign. He addressed it directly on a number of occasions. In a podcast, he spoke about his legacy in personal terms, as a story he learned about in his teens having been subject to years of hurtful schoolyard gossip, and said that his name was his alone. But during the campaign, he also visited a park with former KMT president Ma Ying-jeou to pay respects to a statue of Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang Wan-an did not campaign as heir to Chiang Kai-shek, however, and his own story embodies Taiwan’s development as a modern democracy as it negotiates its difficult past under authoritarian rule and its republican history. He has benefited from his family’s political capital, as the DPP frequently pointed out, but he himself is a thoroughly modern politician. He is a corporate lawyer, with a US degree, married to Shih Fang-gen, an information technology professional, and they have two young children with another on the way. His campaign emphasised building Taipei into an investment-friendly international city that acknowledged its indigenous heritage, had better childcare access and had improved traffic management.

The DPP candidate in the Taipei mayoral election was Chen Shih-chung, the former health minister who led Taiwan’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Taipei has been an unhappy city for the DPP since the 1990s, and despite Chen’s personal approval ratings as health minister, his loss showed that the party misjudged the political dividend coming out of Covid.

The 9-in-1 election results dispel somewhat the aura that Tsai had taken on as she has strengthened Taiwan’s international position through the pandemic and skilfully capitalised on changing US and European sentiment towards China under President Xi Jinping. Her international legacy as a consequential president of Taiwan is assured, but the Taiwanese electorate is unforgiving. Under the constitution, she is limited to two terms, and the election results probably weaken her authority within the DPP to shape its 2024 presidential campaign and manage the party’s factions. It places vice president and sometime rival Lai Ching-teh in a good position to be the 2024 DPP candidate, despite his relative lack of international experience.

For the opposition KMT, the good showing is a morale booster after a difficult period for the party in which it was unable to find an election-winning formula because it was bogged down in internal disputes between modernisers and a deeply conservative old guard. Chiang Wan-an’s win in Taipei points to generational change and a political style that could work for the party, but he is many years away from national politics. The mayor of New Taipei, former police officer Hou Yu-ih, who was comfortably re-elected, is probably the party’s frontrunner for a presidential run.

And as China struggles with its pandemic response, domestic protests, economic indicators and the hard loyalist politics that emerged from the 20th Chinese Communist Party congress, the results for the KMT could ease the pressure in cross-strait relations, at least in the short term. Cooler heads in the CCP system might be able to attenuate the leadership’s fixation on Tsai and the ‘separatists’—who account for the vast majority of the Taiwanese population—and argue that the KMT remains a viable political force that the CCP can deal with, so moving Taiwan down China’s list of crises.

But Taiwanese politics is never not dynamic. While a win for the KMT in the 2024 presidential election is very possible, the DPP has its own equivalent to Chiang Wan-an. Enoch Wu is a young, US-educated former financier and Taiwanese special forces soldier who is the son of former dissident and academic Wu Nai-teh. Wu has built an international media profile through his promotion of civic defence via his NGO Forward Alliance and has announced his intention to run for Chiang Wan-an’s vacated legislative seat.

These two young political figures highlight the genuine political contest in Taiwan’s democracy and how its democratic politics mediate cross-strait relations and Taiwan’s international position. The Taiwanese never quite respond to China in ways that international observers expect, and its domestic politics and history are usually the missing data points in international analyses.