Taiwan votes in local elections amid China tensions

International Desk Published: 26 November 2022, 10:34 AM
Taiwan votes in local elections amid China tensions
The elections come as Taiwan has been a key geopolitical flashpoint between China and the US this year

Millions in Taiwan are heading to the polls as the island's local midterm elections kick off on Saturday.

Local council and city mayors are elected in the polls, which are held every four years, reports BBC. 

But these elections are also drawing global attention this year as Taiwan becomes a bigger geopolitical flashpoint between China and the US.

The Chinese government sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that will, eventually, be part of the country.

But many Taiwanese people consider their self-ruled island - with its own form of government and a democratic system- to be distinct.

This election also involves a referendum to lower the voting age to 18. Currently, only people above the age of 20 can vote. But more and more younger people appear to be becoming politically conscious, with turnout at the 2020 vote being the highest ever. Young people have told the BBC they're directly being driven by the "China threat" - an issue that has been a big part of the political conversation here throughout their lives.

Two parties and two views

There are two main political parties in Taiwan - both with differing views towards China.

The Kuomintang (KMT)- conservative business champions - are traditionally seen as pro-China "doves". They have advocated for economic engagement with China and have appeared to be in favour of unification, though they have strongly denied being pro-China.

Their main rival is the governing Democratic People's Party (DPP) whose leader Tsai Ing-wen won by a landslide in the 2020 national election. Ms Tsai has taken a strong stance towards China, saying Beijing needed to show Taiwan respect, and that Taipei would not bow to pressure.

She was re-elected in 2020 on a promise to stand up to Beijing. Locals told the BBC then that protests in Hong Kong and Beijing's subsequent crackdown on civil rights had raised concerns in Taiwan.

"The DPP is experiencing diminishing returns to its traditional brand of Taiwanese nationalism," says Wen-ti Sung, a Taiwan politics analyst in Taipei who works for the Australian National University.

He says this year was full of national security events that should have been favourable to the DPP's "rallying around the flag" sentiment.

He refers to US House speaker Nancy Pelosi's controversial visit to Taiwan and China's massive military drills in response, the war in Ukraine, and Chinese President Xi Jinping's commitment to make progress on cross-strait relations.

"Yet virtually all the polls indicate the DPP [is] failing to translate heightened nationalist sentiment into electoral support, unlike its big wins after the 2014 Sunflower Movement and 2020 presidential election post-Hong Kong crisis," he said.

Chinese interference has dwindled

The government has claimed, ahead of the vote, that election meddling and interference from China was less than previously recorded.

Taiwan has accused China of repeated efforts to influence voters - through online misinformation campaigns, military threats and even offering cheap flights to Taiwanese living in China.

But Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Chinese interference "was not as prevailing as [in] previous elections".

He noted that Beijing might simply be "very busy in dealing with its own domestic problems", referring to China's soaring Covid cases.

Races to watch

According to the polls, the mayoral race is quite close in Taipei and Hsinchu, Taiwan's Silicon Valley which is home to the country's world-leading semiconductor and microchip businesses.

The races to watch out for are in the six big mega cities, where 75% of the population live.

In Taipei, the KMT's candidate is a man who says he's the great grand-son of Chiang Kai-shek, who ruled Taiwan for several decades in the 20th century.

The family has rejected the claim but analysts point out that the KMT have often alluded to the link in their campaign.

Hsinchu is also considered a bellwether, Dr Sung says. It's a tight three-way mayor race, with the KMT and DPP candidates being challenged by a technocrat, backed by Taiwan People's Party and Terry Gou, the founder of technology manufacturing giant Foxconn.

The incumbent DPP sees winning Hsinchu as critical to retaining its electoral support in northern Taiwan.