On Sunday afternoon 150,000 people gathered in front of the Taipei city hall. Harley motorcycles, giant floats, balloons and mascots led the parade to a soundtrack of music banned in China. It looked like a concert, but on this day the main act was a politician.
The crowds were there to support Taipei mayoral candidate Chen Shih-chung, a former minister of health with the governing Democratic Progressive party (DPP).
Supporters excitedly waved flags and screamed “win the election!”. One of Chen’s main rivals for the seat, which is considered a stepping stone to the presidency, is Chiang Wan-an.
Chiang claims to be the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist leader who ran a decades-long dictatorship in Taiwan after fleeing China at the end of the civil war. Polls show the race is tight.
The lively event was just one of the rallies in “golden week” ahead of Taiwan’s local elections on Saturday. Millions of people are expected to travel to their home towns to vote for new leaders from county level down to village representatives.
The elections, held every four years and described by some as “Taiwan’s midterms”, are a key test of the ruling DPP’s support ahead of the presidential vote in 2024 and China’s claims over the island have become central to the campaign.
The elections will be the first national vote since China’s massive military escalation towards Taiwan, which it claims as its territory and has vowed to take by force if necessary.
Beijing in focus
Local elections have always focused on domestic issues such as social welfare, housing, and energy. However, President Tsai Ing-wen and senior government officials have urged voters to use these elections to stand up to Beijing and show the world that Taiwan’s democracy will not succumb to threats.
The KMT, the main opposition party, has traditionally been seen as in favour of closer ties to Beijing. While it strongly denies being pro-China, it has mostly avoided campaigning on issues related to China and focused on domestic topics.
“The whole world is watching whether Taiwanese people will choose a pro-China political party, or a party that defends democracy and supports Taiwan’s sovereignty and independence,” the premier of Taiwan, Su Tseng-chang, said in a recent interview.
All pro-independence party candidates including Chen have signed a pledge of “no surrender” to China.
But analysts say the focus on cross-strait tensions, which drove voter turnout and helped Tsai win back-to-back presidencies, isn’t connecting with a public that is more focused on the government’s domestic performance.
“This election will show whether the DPP’s China threat is facing diminishing marginal returns over time,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University.
“So far it has largely been met with apathy in the Taiwanese media, for it feels somewhat out of place to link Taiwan’s survival with township-level elections,” Sung said.
Local issues matter
Recent polls have suggested the opposition KMT is expected to win more local races than the DPP.
“It is not that KMT is winning more support, but KMT incumbents in some cities have popularity among their electorate,” said Jeremy Huai-Che Chiang, a Taipei-based analyst.
“They also tend to campaign more on local issues rather than Taiwan-China relations,” Chiang said.
The KMT has scoffed at the “no surrender” pledge and only two candidates are believed to have signed it.
“There is little direct correlation between cross-strait relations and Taiwan’s local elections,” said Shen Yu-Chung, professor of political science at Tunghai University in Taiwan.
Shen said a win by the KMT would not necessarily shift policies in favour of Beijing.
Saturday’s vote also includes a referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at dropping the voting age from 20 to 18 for the first time. The proposal has angered Beijing. Young people in Taiwan are increasingly pro-independence and enthusiastic about democracy, with many running for local seats.
As those elected on Saturday will not be involved in foreign policy development, the DPP decision to campaign on China appears to be pure politics. But some voters appear to be persuaded by the strategy.
One voter, Nini Chang, said local issues were tied up with larger ones.
“The seats and actions of these people will also affect the operation and the decision-making of the parliament, the relationship between Taiwan and the world [not only China] and the cross-strait relations.
“Cross-strait relations are tense now … If we choose someone with no political opinions or favours one country, two systems, we are unified earlier by China.”