On Sunday afternoon, 150,000 people gathered in front of 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 this day the main act was a politician.
The crowd was there to support Taipei mayoral candidate Chen Shih-chung, a former health minister in the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Supporters excitedly waved flags and shouted “win the election!”. One of Chen’s main rivals for the seat, which is seen as a stepping stone to the presidency, is Chiang Wan-an.
Chiang claims to be the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek, the nationalist leader of the Kuomintang (KMT) who presided over a decades-long dictatorship in Taiwan after fleeing China at the end of the civil war. Polls show the race is close.
The lively event was just one of the “Golden Week” rallies ahead of Taiwan’s local elections on Saturday. Millions of people are expected to travel to their hometowns to vote for new leaders from the 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 2024 presidential vote, and China’s claims over the island have become central to the campaign.
The election will be the first national vote since China’s massive military escalation against 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 favoring closer ties with Beijing. Although it vehemently denies being pro-China, it has mostly avoided campaigning on issues related to China and focused on domestic issues.
“The whole world is watching whether the Taiwanese people will choose a pro-China political party or a party that defends democracy and supports Taiwan’s sovereignty and independence,” Taiwan’s prime minister, 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 turnout and helped Tsai win back-to-back presidencies, is not connecting with a public more focused on the government’s domestic performance.
“This election will show whether the DPP’s China threat faces diminishing marginal returns over time,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University.
“So far, it’s been largely met with apathy in the Taiwanese media, because it feels a little out of place to link Taiwan’s survival to township-level elections,” Sung said.
Local issues are important
Recent polls have suggested that the opposition KMT is expected to win more local races than the DPP.
“It’s not that the KMT is gaining more support, but the KMT incumbents in some cities have popularity among their voters,” 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 conditions and Taiwan’s local elections,” said Shen Yu-Chung, a professor of political science at Tunghai University in Taiwan.
Shen said a victory by the KMT would not necessarily change policy in favor of Beijing.
Saturday’s vote also includes a referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at lowering 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.
Since those elected on Saturday will not be involved in the development of foreign policy, the DPP’s decision to campaign against China appears to be pure politics. But some voters seem convinced by the strategy.
One voter, Nini Chang, said local issues were connected to larger ones.
“These people’s seats and actions will also affect the operation and decision-making of the parliament, the relationship between Taiwan and the world [not only China] and the relations across the strait.
“Cross-Strait relations are tense now … If we elect someone without political opinions or favor one country, two systems, we will be united by China earlier.”