China must not misjudge Taiwan’s popular will from local election results

Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party suffered a crushing defeat in local elections. This is seen as a sign of dissatisfaction among voters mainly over economy-related issues and does not mean that President Tsai Ing-wen’s policy toward China has been rejected. Careful attention must be paid to China’s propaganda.

The main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), won 13 of the 21 mayoral and county chief elections, including Taipei. The DPP secured only five of these posts, fewer than before the election. Tsai announced her resignation as DPP leader to take responsibility for the defeat.

The election campaign focused on issues closely related to daily life, such as inflation and economic stimulus measures, and frustrated voters cast ballots for candidates from opposition parties. The ruling party strived to make its policy toward China as well as foreign and security issues points of contention, but such matters did not seem to interest voters.

In addition, concerns about single-party dominance in which the DPP controls not only the presidency and the legislative body, but also local chiefs and councils, are believed to have worked in the opposition’s favor. Voters’ sense of balance is probably a sign that democracy has been established in Taiwan.

The problem is the reaction of China’s government. Beijing issued a statement welcoming the election results, saying that the results “reflect the mainstream public will for peace, stability and a better life.” Based on its claim that the Tsai administration has increased tensions with China, Beijing apparently wants to say this hard line has been rejected.

The Tsai administration has insisted on maintaining the status quo in its relations with China and has adopted a policy of working with Japan and the United States to deal with China’s military pressure. This stance is highly supported by Taiwan residents, and the KMT’s insistence on improving relations with China is unlikely to be accepted amid these circumstances.

Beijing, nevertheless, may intensify such public opinion maneuvering online to jolt Tsai and provide indirect support to the KMT.

It is nothing but selfishness for China to conveniently interpret Taiwan people’s will when it restricts its own people so that they cannot express their will freely. It is important to be vigilant to prevent the spread of false perceptions through China’s information manipulation.

With Tsai’s resignation as party president, it is inevitable that her political influence will diminish. The focus of Taiwan politics will shift to the selection of candidates for the presidential election in January 2024, and the competition for leadership within the DPP will intensify.

Tsai will leave office after two four-year terms, and who will succeed her has not been determined. Vice President William Lai is considered the leading candidate, separating himself from the status quo-minded group that supports Tsai with his strong stance on Taiwan’s independence.

A drastic change in policy toward Beijing could lead to further intensification of conflict with China and regional instability, which would be undesirable for Japan and the United States. Relevant discussions need to proceed carefully and steadily.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 29, 2022)