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Following Taiwan’s Ruling Party’s Beating, All Eyes Are on the Presidential Election

With the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) humiliated in Saturday’s local elections and President Tsai Ing-decision wen’s to focus on China backfiring with voters, attention is now shifting to Taiwan’s 2024 presidential race.

The Kuomintang, or KMT, the largest opposition party, swept to victory in the mayoral and county elections, taking 13 of the 21 seats up for grabs, including the prosperous and affluent capital Taipei, as predicted. None of the elected officials directly influence China’s policy.

Due in large part to Taiwan’s significant role as a semiconductor maker, China has been stepping up military measures to support its claims that the island is its own territory. Although the KMT has historically supported close connections with China, it vehemently rejects being pro-Beijing.

It had been in trouble ever since losing the 2020 presidential race, and it took a hit in December when four referendums it had supported as a vote of no confidence in the government fell short. The KMT knew that winning required unity, according to party chairman Eric Chu, who was speaking to reporters late on Saturday at the party’s headquarters.

He stated, “The people of Taiwan have given us a chance. “The KMT’s only chance of winning the 2024 election is via selflessness.” After the defeat—the worst result in the party’s history—Tsai resigned as chairwoman of the DPP, leaving her with just five mayor or county chief seats.

Specifically, after China conducted war drills close to the island in August and President Xi Jinping, who has promised to annex Taiwan, was elected to an unprecedented third term in office last month, she had presented the vote as a way to express opposition to China’s growing bellicosity.

However, Tsai’s campaign failed to energize voters because they disconnected geopolitics from local elections, which customarily place more emphasis on issues like crime and pollution. Only 59% of eligible voters turned out on Saturday in Taiwan’s six most populous cities, a record low compared to the nationwide turnout of over 75% expected in 2020.

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With its own domestic issues, such as protests related to its zero-COVID policy, China has been preoccupied. Foreign Minister of Taiwan Joseph Wu stated last week that Taiwan was experiencing less Chinese meddling in local elections, potentially as a result of China’s own internal issues and efforts to enhance its worldwide reputation.

DPP Secretary-General Lin Hsi-Yao declined to explicitly address their strategy of elevating the China problem to such a level, instead telling reporters that the party will conduct an “examination” of what went wrong. The COVID-19 epidemic and whether the government preferred a domestic vaccination over an imported one were two topics on which the KMT had centered its campaign.

The pro-DPP Liberty Times newspaper in Taiwan wrote in a Sunday editorial that it was more difficult to influence voters in local elections with “abstract political ideals” and that the DPP would see divisive splits when choosing its presidential candidate for 2024.

Halfway through Taiwan Ing-second wen’s term, the succession debate “may spawn internal tensions, undermining the combat efficacy of having all guns pointing outwards.” Vice President William Lai, who is thought to be the most likely candidate for president in 2024 according to party sources and who participated in a prominent campaigning role for the local elections, apologized for the poor performance on his Facebook page on Saturday but did not address his future.

A vote for the KMT was successfully portrayed as a vote for China in the wake of a brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrators in Hong Kong, although the DPP did return from a similar trouncing in the 2018 local elections to win a landslide at the presidential and legislative polls in 2020.

The KMT rejects claims that it would cede Taiwan to China or that it lacks a commitment to democracy, but it accuses the DPP of purposefully inflaming tensions with Beijing for political gain. The DPP disputes this, and Tsai has made numerous offers to talk to China but has been turned down because Beijing sees her as a separatist.

“The KMT’s resounding victory does not portend the emergence of a pro-Beijing political climate in Taiwan. The KMT is not a pro-Beijing party either, according to Huang Kwei-bo, a former KMT deputy secretary general and associate professor of diplomacy at Taipei’s National Chengchi University.

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