Taiwan goes to polls in closely watched local vote ahead of presidential election

Voters headed to the polls across Taiwan on Saturday in a closely watched local election that will determine the strength of the major political parties ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Taiwanese citizens are picking their mayors, city council members and other local leaders in all 13 counties and the six major cities. There’s also a referendum to lower the voting age from 20 to 18.

While international observers and the ruling party have attempted to link the elections to the long-term existential threat that is Taiwan’s neighbour, many local experts do not think China has a large role to play this time around.

“The international society have raised the stakes too high,” said Yeh-lih Wang, a political science professor at National Taiwan University. “They’ve raised a local election to this international level, and Taiwan’s survival.”

President Tsai Ing-wen, who also serves as the chairman of the ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP), has spoken out many times about “opposing China and defending Taiwan” in the course of campaigning. But Chen Shih-chung, the DPP’s candidate running for mayor in Taipei, raised the issue of the Communist party’s threat only a few times before quickly switching back to local issues when there was little interest, experts said.

During campaigning, there were few mentions of the large-scale military exercises targeting Taiwan that China held in August in reaction to US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island.

“So I think if you can’t even raise this issue in [the capital] Taipei,” Wang said, “you don’t even need to consider it in cities in the south.”

Instead, campaigns resolutely focused on local issues: air pollution in the central city of Taichung, traffic jams in Taipei’s tech hub Nangang, and the island’s Covid-19 vaccine purchasing strategies, which had left the island in short supply during an outbreak last year.

Candidates have spent the past week before the elections in a packed public schedule. On Sunday, the DPP’s Chen marched through Taipei with a large parade filled with dancers in dinosaur suits and performers from different countries. Chiang Wan-an, the Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist party’s mayoral candidate, canvassed at a hardware market, while Vivian Huang, an independent candidate, visited lunch stalls at a market. All three made stops at Taipei’s famous night markets.

The question is how the island’s two major political parties – the KMT and the incumbent DPP – will fare. Because both Tsai and the KMT’s chair, Eric Chu, handpicked candidates, the performance will impact their own standings within their party, as well as the party’s strength in the coming two years.

“If the DPP loses many county seats, then their ability to rule will face a very strong challenge,” said You Ying-lung, chair at the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, which regularly conducts public surveys on political issues.

The election results would in some ways also reflect the public’s attitude towards the ruling party’s performance in the past two years, You said.

Observers are also watching to see if candidates of the outgoing Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je’s Taiwan People’s party pick up a mayoral seat. A 2024 presidential bid for Ko will be influenced by his party’s political performance on Saturday, analysts say. Ko has been campaigning with his deputy, the independent mayoral candidate Huang, for the past several weeks.

“We want to see someone international,” said food stall owner Hsian Fuh Mei. “Look at Singapore. Before, we were better than Singapore, but we’ve fallen behind. I hope we can change direction.”

Others were more apathetic about the local race. “It feels as if everyone is almost the same, from the policy standpoint,” said 26-year-old Sean Tai, an employee at a hardware store.

Tai wants someone who will raise Taipei’s profile and bring better economic prospects while keeping the status quo with China. “We don’t want to be completely sealed off. I really hope that Taiwan can be seen internationally.”