(Bloomberg) — Chiang Kai-shek’s great-grandson declared victory in the race to be mayor of Taiwan’s capital, as the ruling party suffered a resounding defeat in island-wide local elections a little more than a year before a new president is chosen.
Chiang Wan-an of the opposition Kuomintang will become, at 43 years old, the youngest ever mayor of Taipei, a position that can serve as a springboard to the presidency.
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“Everyone, we did it,” he told a crowd of several thousand people outside his campaign headquarters Saturday night. He didn’t mention simmering tensions between the US and China over the democratically ruled island’s autonomy in his brief remarks.
The Democratic Progressive Party was in line to win just five mayor and county leader races across the island, which would be the least since its founding in 1986. KMT candidates took 50% of votes in the contests, versus 41.6% for the DPP, with 11.3 million ballots counted as of 10:39 p.m. in Taipei, according to the official election website.
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That prompted President Tsai Ing-wen to step down as party leader, saying in televised remarks: “In the face of these results, there are many areas where we need to engage in self-reflection.”
The elections represented the last major test of Tsai’s DPP before her second and final term draws to a close and Taiwan picks a successor in early 2024. The KMT, or Nationalist Party, hopes the gains in local races will help it mount a comeback after defeats in presidential elections in 2016 and 2020.
Tsai had spoken out many times about “opposing China and defending Taiwan” in the course of campaigning for her party. But the party’s candidate Chen Shih-chung, who lost his battle for mayor of Taipei, only raised the issue of the Chinese Communist Party’s threat a few times before he quickly switched back to local issues as there was little interest
Tsai offered her resignation on Saturday evening, a tradition after a major loss, in a short speech in which she also thanked supporters.
The results will be closely watched in Washington and Beijing, since the DPP’s rise to power has prompted China to cut off communications with Taiwan and ramp up diplomatic and military pressure on the island. The KMT, which favors eventual unification with China, had previously overseen a historic expansion of ties with Beijing, easing travel, trade and investment across the Taiwan Strait.
The outcome Saturday “would count as a major victory for the KMT,” said Chang Teng-chi, professor of political science at National Taiwan University.
The strong showing could help KMT party head Eric Chu and New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih in any run for president, Chang added. Hou was poised to win re-election.
Chiang’s great grandfather was the late KMT leader, who fought and lost a civil war against Mao Zedong’s Communists and is remembered by many Taiwanese for his repression. Taiwan marks a holiday on Feb. 28 each year to remember thousands of people killed in a military crackdown by his government.
In the crowd of enthusiastic supporters outside Chiang’s campaign headquarters, Denise Lee, who described herself as an independent voter in her 60s, said she was highly concerned about cross-strait tensions. In August, China held unprecedented military drills around the island that also included the People’s Liberation Army sending missiles overhead.
“It’s very concerning now,” she said. “It actually seems like war could break out.”
In other results, the KMT won four of six major cities, where some 70% of the population live. The DPP held onto its southern stronghold of Kaohsiung, where Chen Chi-mai won.
Voters appeared to reject a referendum to lower the voting age to 18 from 20. Some 5.6 million people backed the first civil referendum in the island’s history, well short of the 9.6 million needed.
One key issue on the minds of voters was the economy as 2022 winds down. Exports dropped for a second straight month in October and officials have warned that overseas shipments for November are expected to fall between 5% and 8%.
Jessica Drun, a specialist in cross-strait ties at the Atlantic Council think tank, said Beijing “will likely be reassured” by the results of Saturday’s elections, and may soon make goodwill gestures to the KMT, possibly in the form of economic incentives.
“It will likely also seek to foster or deepen ties with successful candidates and factions in order to shape the party’s policy approaches,” she said.
With assistance from Chien-Hua Wan and Spe Chen. Additional reporting from AP and Reuters