Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

KMT local election landslide is good news for regional peace

  • Taiwan needs to play a more neutral role in the Beijing-Washington rivalry, rather than turning itself into a strategic outpost for the US

Just when people have left the Kuomintang for dead, it comes roaring back. A blue wave represented by the KMT has swept across Taiwan. Its landslide victory will offer a foretaste of the presidential election in early 2024. That’s bad news for the island’s secessionists and Washington’s professional troublemakers, but good news for cross-strait and regional stability, perhaps even world peace.

It’s been argued by Taiwanese pundits and others that the local elections – which covered six municipalities, 22 cities and counties with more than 11,000 local government posts up for grabs – focused mostly on local and livelihood issues, including President Tsai Ing-wen’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. But if so, voters simply didn’t take seriously the “China threat” drummed up by Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

After all, it was Tsai herself who turned the local polls into a referendum on her presidency. Throughout the campaign, she had made the case that she was all that stood between Taiwan’s democracy and freedom and a mainland invasion.

She repeatedly claimed only a DPP victory would save Taiwan’s hard-won democracy from being destroyed by Beijing. In a campaign video message shown on Thursday, Tsai explicitly called the weekend vote a referendum on her leadership, saying a vote for DPP candidates was a vote for her commitment to “take good care” of Taiwan.

But like her idol, former American president Donald Trump whose hand-picked candidates performed dismally in the midterm US elections, Tsai’s own preferred candidates also did poorly. She has resigned her party chairmanship.

The KMT managed to flip key mayoral seats in Taipei, Taoyuan and Keelung, and won control of 13 out of 22 cities and counties. It is also expected to win the election for the mayor of Chiayi City, which was postponed until December because a candidate unexpectedly died.

The KMT’s Wayne Chiang Wan-an defeated the DPP’s Chen Shih-chung to become Taipei mayor. Party colleague and incumbent mayor of the municipality of New Taipei City, Hou You-yi, also won by a decisive 27.8 percentage points over his DPP rival.

Tsai tried to play up native patriotism and the China threat. That proved to be an undoing for her party.

Chiang, the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek and grandson of Chiang Ching-kuo, won by more than 10 percentage points over Chen, who had served as the island’s minister of health and welfare during much of the pandemic, winning praise from Western governments but attracting much criticism from locals.

Taiwan elections: what do KMT’s gains mean for the 2024 presidential race?

Before his electoral victory, some Taiwanese pundits claimed Chiang’s political pedigree was more of a liability than an asset. But Han Kuo-yu, a former Kaohsiung mayor and ex-KMT presidential candidate – who is still widely popular within the “deep blue” or “pro-unification” camp – showed enormous foresight in backing Chiang for the mayoral race.

Whether an asset or not, the Chiang family name turns out not to be an obstacle. After all, a Marcos is now the president of the Philippines. If Chiang Kai-shek is seen as a dictator, his son Chiang Ching-kuo paved the way for Taiwan’s peaceful transition to democracy. The young Chiang, 43, is the rising star of the KMT. He is now a likely presidential candidate.

The KMT will not embrace mainland China; that would be electoral suicide. But neither will it bet the ranch by openly joining the US military alliance against the mainland in all but name. For Beijing, that’s “the America threat”, and Tsai has gone out of her way to offer her services for Washington to play the Taiwan card. In doing so, she has helped turn the Taiwan Strait into perhaps the most dangerous flashpoint in the region, if not the world outside Ukraine.

Beijing has no intention to invade. Taiwan simply needs to play a more neutral role in the rivalry between China and the US, like most other governments in the region. Tsai’s biggest mistake was to turn the island into a strategic outpost for Washington.