Taiwan held its closely watched “9-in-1” elections (九合一選舉) over the weekend on November 26.  With most of the races accounted for, the Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨) won 13 of the top political posts of local governments across 22 cities, counties, and special municipalities, while the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) won only five. Of the remaining contested localities, one was held by the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 台灣民眾黨), and the other two went to independent, non-affiliated politicians.  With this electoral victory, the KMT continued its winning streak at the local level since 2018, and made progress toward reconstituting the electoral ground it lost in 2014.
Local elections tend to be focused on local issues rather than cross-Strait and national issues, and this year’s competition is no exception. Nevertheless, the results of the local elections will affect party politics heading into the 2024 presidential and legislative elections—which in turn could influence internal dynamics within Taiwan, as well as relations across the Taiwan Strait. This preliminary analysis will examine the results of the local elections, what they mean for party politics, and their implications for the 2024 presidential and legislative elections.
A Blue Wave?
Many pundits and commentators have already opined that the local elections represent a “historic defeat” for the DPP and a “blue wave” for the KMT, which could carry over to the presidential and legislative elections in 2024. Indeed, the election saw the DPP win the lowest number of top local offices in its history. However, while the political momentum from the local elections could certainly influence the 2024 elections, such projections may be overblown: in terms of the net number of seats that the DPP lost—which would be a stronger indicator of the strength of any so-called wave—this performance is far from the DPP’s worst, or the KMT’s best.
To put matters into perspective, the KMT currently has a net loss of one office and the DPP has a net loss of two offices from what they had going into these elections. In terms of net losses, the 2018 local elections were far more devastating for the DPP and represented the KMT’s best performance in over 20 years. During those elections, the KMT trounced the DPP by regaining control of nine offices for leading local governments and won control of 15 of the 22 top local offices—whereas the DPP lost a whopping seven posts that it previously controlled, falling to six. 
Overall, in terms of net gains, the KMT’s victory in 2022 could be best described as modest. Even if it retains control of Chiayi City (which is scheduled to hold its election separately in December), that will mean that the KMT will control 14 of the 22 seats, the same total number of seats it held going into the elections. Moreover, the number of seats won is historically not a strong indicator of who will win in the presidential and legislative elections. Indeed, despite its significant losses in the 2018 elections, the DPP still managed to win the 2020 presidential election and maintain its majority in the Legislative Yuan.
Finally, local elections also tend to favor the KMT. In the eight local elections held in the past 20 years (not including 2022), the DPP only won three in terms of popular vote received. That is a win rate of 62.5 percent for the KMT and 37.5 percent for the DPP. If one also considers the 2014 election an outlier due to the impacts of the Sunflower Movement, the odds against the DPP winning in local election contests may be seen as even lower.
Image: Taipei mayoral candidate Wayne Chiang (left) and KMT Chairman Eric Chu (right) wave to supporters from a campaign motorcade on November 22. (Image source: Central News Agency)
Symbolic but Significant Victories for the KMT
While the net difference in the number of seats controlled by each party does not reflect a significant change in the local electoral map, the seats won by the KMT—and to a lesser extent, the TPP—compared to the DPP do hold important symbolic value and suggest that certain political conditions may be playing out. In turn, these could affect the more consequential 2024 presidential and legislative elections. At the same time, the KMT’s losses were arguably insignificant (i.e., Miaoli, Penghu, and Kinmen), as the party now controls four of the six special municipalities under the central government: Taipei, New Taipei, Taoyuan, and Taichung. Of all the races, the most significant races for their symbolic value were Taipei City, Taoyuan City, Keelung City, and Hsinchu City.
Taipei City is arguably the most prestigious mayoral post in the whole country. It is the capital and commands significant political status and resources. For 16 years from 1998-2014, Taipei City was a KMT stronghold, until the TPP’s Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) won in 2014. Even after losing Taipei City, the KMT had been gradually progressing toward reclaiming the mayor’s office. For instance, in 2018 it lost only by a razor-thin margin of 3,567 votes (a .23 percent difference). Despite having a mayor for the last eight years who was not aligned with either the “pan-Green” or “pan-Blue” coalitions, Taipei City still leans Blue. The only time that the DPP controlled Taipei City was from 1994-1998, and in the 2018 mayoral race, the DPP’s candidate only managed to win 17 percent of the votes. Given these electoral conditions, it is not all that surprising that the KMT won, as Ko was not in the running. Overall, Chen Shih-chung’s (陳時中) showing in this election is the closest the DPP has been in recent years, garnering a respectable 31.9 percent of total votes to Wayne Chiang’s (蔣萬安) 42.3 percent.
KMT Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) staked a great deal on having Chiang run as the KMT candidate in the Taipei City mayoral race. With Chiang’s win, he could potentially revitalize the KMT and give the party a prominent new political face to attract younger voters. It is no secret that the KMT has struggled to connect with youth in Taiwan, and to shake off its image as a party of elderly politicians. This has contributed to its flagging support rate among the general population. According to Academia Sinica researcher Nathan Batto, approximately 74 percent of the age 20-29 cohort who voted in the 2020 elections cast their ballot for Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). Although the 2022 referendum to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 failed, the youth vote will likely continue to be an important dynamic in the 2024 presidential and legislative elections.
Even if Chiang’s win may not have a direct bearing on the KMT’s chances in 2024, it is the most coveted position for politicians in Taiwan, and is traditionally seen as a step to the presidency—thereby setting Chiang up for a potential 2028 run for the top political office.
Taoyuan City and Keelung City
Both Taoyuan and Keelung represent symbolic losses for the DPP, since it won both these seats in the 2014 wave that swept many DPP mayors and magistrates into previous KMT strongholds. The popular incumbent mayors in those two cities were barred from running for a third term due to term limits, and the KMT put up high-profile political heavyweights like former Premier Simon Chang (張善政) and Hsieh Kuo-liang (謝國樑), an entrepreneur and former legislator, to run in those races.
Similar to Taoyuan and Keelung, the DPP was able to gain electoral control of Hsinchu City in 2014 in the green tidal wave that swept through Taiwan’s local offices in 2014 in the wake of the Sunflower Movement. Like many cities and counties in northern Taiwan, it had been strongly in the grip of the KMT for well over a decade since 2000. Like the DPP mayors in Taoyuan and Keelung, the DPP mayor that ran Hsinchu from 2014 through 2022 was barred running for the same office due to term limits. While it was the TPP and not the KMT that won this race, Hsinchu City nevertheless represents a symbolic loss for the DPP.
Whither Sunflower Effects?
The impact of 2014’s Sunflower Movement on the present-day electoral map cannot be overstated. Since being swept out in the local elections in 2014 and losing the presidential election in 2016, the KMT has struggled to recover electorally at the national level. It faced significant internal discord that prevented unified tickets, while its national policy positions increasingly rendered it out of touch with the mainstream of public opinion. The KMT as the opposition party has had to grapple with maintaining internal cohesion, which is still ongoing as competing factions vie to determine the party’s future relations with the People’s Republic of China. The party’s electoral defeats in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections have only exacerbated these tensions.
However, by reclaiming Taipei, Taoyuan, and Keelung—which it lost in 2014—the KMT may finally be overcoming the effects of the Sunflower Movement and returning to a more traditional role in Taiwan’s local politics. Far from a tidal wave, however, this has represented a gradual reconstituting of the KMT’s historically strong position at the local level.
Implications for 2024
Even though the local elections are often referred to by observers as a bellwether for the country’s presidential and legislative elections, the 2022 results should not be automatically interpreted to mean that the KMT will win in the 2024 presidential and legislative elections. To be clear, the predictive value of the local elections as to which party will win the presidential election is marginal at best. Over the past 22 years, there were only two local elections—2006 and 2014—in which the party that won in terms of total votes went on to win the presidential elections.
Perhaps the most significant result of the 2022 local elections is that they resulted in the resignation of Tsai Ing-wen as chair of the DPP. While it is customary that the chairman of the losing party steps down to take responsibility for the party’s poor performance, Tsai’s resignation from the post will weaken her influence over the party’s upcoming primary process, which is set to begin in first quarter of 2023. This could inject unknown variables into that contest. While Vice President Lai Ching-te (賴淸德) appears to be the likely frontrunner to become the DPP’s presidential candidate, the lack of a formal role for Tsai in managing the situation between the party’s factions could make the process more unpredictable. However, supporters of the vice president in the DPP’s central committees will likely militate against any unexpected outcomes.
It should be noted that there were calls early on from within the party for KMT Chairman Eric Chu to step down if the party did not win at least two additional seats. Even though Chu did not win a net of two additional seats, as noted earlier, the KMT chairman did win some important seats. Whether this technicality will satisfy his political opponents remains to be seen. To be clear, the KMT chairman cannot rest peacefully. Chu’s performance is not a game changer for the 2024 elections. Recall the aftermath of the significant electoral victory in 2018, when then-Chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) passed on the chance to run in the party’s primary that led to a special process enacted to draft Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜). So despite the significant electoral victory in 2018, the KMT still lost in the 2020 presidential election.
KMT leaders allied with the current chairman will likely want to spin the results as positively as possible in order to ensure that Chu remains the leader. At the very least, Chu should be able to convince centrist-leaning party members to give him more time to build on the momentum from the local elections and consolidate greater support around his leadership, thereby giving the party a more competitive chance in the 2024 presidential and legislative elections. Yet, there are still many important variables that could upend his management of the party: party unity, his own flagging popularity, and, perhaps more notably in this upcoming election, third-party candidates like Ko.
Taiwan’s local elections tend to focus on local issues. A factor that worked in favor of the KMT in the local elections was the inability of the DPP to turn cross-Strait relations into an electoral issue (despite efforts by Tsai and the DPP to make it so, which were probably too little, too late). Despite events such as the Chinese military’s massive exercises in August, and KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia’s (夏立言) untimely visit to China, there does not appear to have been a noticeable impact on voter preferences in the 2022 election. By contrast, COVID-19 remains at the forefront of voters’ minds. The local elections tend to be more about personalities and less about national policy, and this was the case in this year’s elections, as well.
Moreover, the TPP remains a viable third party. It controls five seats in the Legislative Yuan and was able to retain at least one seat in the local offices. It would have liked to win some of the other local races in order to build its local infrastructure, but local elections are challenging for third parties with limited resources. There is no doubt that TPP Chairman Ko Wen-je has ambitions for higher office and is gaming out his options for the 2024 election. Given his popularity, he could be a wild card in the 2024 presidential race. While speculative, the KMT’s tight victory in the local elections may convince him that he has a better chance and more bargaining power than previously expected. The TPP could team up with either the KMT or DPP in the 2024 presidential and legislative elections, potentially making it a kingmaker in those contests.
The local elections themselves have little direct impact on cross-Strait relations. Indirectly, however, the results could produce cascading effects that would have implications for the 2024 presidential and legislative elections. In turn, this could significantly impact the situation across the Taiwan Strait. Even though it was not a “blue wave” as some described, the KMT is certainly the party heading into the 2024 elections with the stronger momentum.
The main point: While the 2022 local election cycle represented a substantial victory for the KMT, it is unclear the degree to which the win will influence the 2024 presidential and legislative elections. Nevertheless, the KMT has regained crucial political momentum.
 They are called “9-in-1” because voters in Taiwan’s 22 cities and counties will cast ballots for candidates vying for nine different local government posts, including city mayors, county magistrates, and members of city and county councils. For one exemplary discussion, see: https://focustaiwan.tw/video/004340282.
 Chiayi City will have its election in December, in which the KMT incumbent is favored to win.
 The KMT later lost a seat due to a successful recall of Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu in 2020.