With the nine-in-one local elections approaching in November, political parties in Taiwan have begun to select candidates for mayor, county magistrate, and other local government positions like city and county councilor seats.

Of the positions that are up for grabs, the races for Taiwan’s six major cities — known as special municipalities — are especially important. These races are roughly equivalent to a midterm election, a referendum on the current administration. Of Taiwan’s six special municipality races, Taipei and Taoyuan do not have incumbent candidates. And of the two open races, Taoyuan has received comparatively little attention in English-language media. The race has featured hypocritical partisan attacks that speak to real problems in Taiwan’s democracy.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) selection committee has nominated Hsinchu Mayor Lin Chih-chien for the mayoral race in Taoyuan city. As Lin’s eight-year tenure in Hsinchu will be coming to an end, he has indicated that he will resign in July to commit to the race in Taoyuan. He will be facing the Kuomintang (KMT) surprise candidate, former Premier under Ma Ying-jeou, Simon Chang.

The DPP’s selection of Lin for Taoyuan does not only come as a surprise to many. It also illustrates the many contradictions in political rhetoric that have resulted from top-down campaign strategies in Taiwanese politics among both the ruling party and its main opposition party.

Candidate selection process

During the DPP’s National Congress in November 2021, President and party leader Tsai Ing-wen announced that she would be personally nominating candidates for the six special municipalities. Her nominations will be confirmed by the party’s Central Executive Committee.

This new policy is limited to the upcoming nine-in-one elections and forgoes the primaries in which contenders from the same party would publicly oppose one another. The rationale behind this decision was in line with the DPP national congress’s theme of “Stable Governance, Powerful Taiwan,” suggesting that both party and societal stability are better ensured through the proposed selection method.

Apart from some signs of opposition from former DPP legislator Cheng Pao-ching, who intended to run for Taoyuan mayor, the party has officially backed Tsai’s decision to nominate Lin Chih-chien.

Across the aisle, KMT Chairman Eric Chu criticized the ruling party’s selection method in November 2021, saying the party under Tsai has become a “democratic dictatorship party.” By February though, the KMT announced that its candidates would be selected by the chairman.

The KMT passed an internal policy — much like that of the DPP — to allow Chu to coordinate and unilaterally select the party’s candidates for the six special municipalities. The reason behind the policy is also similar – to concentrate the party’s resources on the most viable candidate, and avoiding costly primaries that may pit party members against one another.

Unlike the ruling party though, a handful of KMT politicians have publicly disagreed with the leadership’s selection of former Premier Simon Chang to run in Taoyuan. Prospective candidates such as Taipei City Councilor Lo Chih-chiang and legislators Lu Yu-ling, Lu Ming-che, and Wan Mei-ling have voiced their disapproval of Chu’s arrangement.

Despite the obvious disparity in party unity between the DPP and the KMT, the processes are indistinguishable.

“Airlifted” candidates

After the KMT nominated Chang for Taoyuan, the DPP criticized the KMT’s selection as an “airlifted” candidate, a carpetbagger with no prior experience with the candidate’s constituency. Chang refuted this by touting not only his political career as the country’s premier, but his twelve-year career in Taoyuan’s Longtan district.

遷戶籍落腳桃園龍潭  張善政:我終於回來了

Photo Credit: CNA

Simon Chang with new household registration documents, June 20, 2022.

The same criticism can be applied to Lin Chih-chien, who served his entire political career as an elected official — one term as councilor and two terms as mayor — in neighboring Hsinchu.

Neither candidate has represented the constituency they are competing for. This is further highlighted by the fact that both are relocating to and registering their households in Taoyuan for them to become eligible mayoral candidates — both are “airlifted.”

Campaigning while in office

Lin Chih-chien is expected to resign as Hsinchu mayor by July. This is a direct result of the DPP’s successful campaign against former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu during the 2020 recall election.

One of the main criticisms leveled against Han was the abandonment of his duties as Kaohsiung mayor during his 2020 presidential campaign. Han later apologized for taking a three-month leave of absence from his post. But his public display of contrition failed to save his seat during the recall.

Because of the effective recall efforts, elected officials in Taiwan are expected to resign from their positions before declaring candidacy if they wish to avoid withering criticisms in the press of “campaigning while in office.” Taipei city councilor Lo Chih-chiang, who was determined to represent the KMT in Taoyuan, resigned from the city council in May.

This line of attack makes little sense, and the practice of resigning in order to campaign has not been followed with much consistency. Most notably, KMT Chairman Eric Chu campaigned for President in 2015 as New Taipei city mayor, while former Vice President Annette Lu from the DPP campaigned alongside former President Chen Shui-bian during her tenure as Taoyuan mayor in 2000. In 2018, at least 11 legislators from both major parties campaigned for heads of local government while in office.

The taboo on campaigning while in office, much like relying on “airlifted” candidates and undemocratic candidate selection methods, has become a common source of hypocritical partisan attack, in which neither party is innocent. But both major parties use such attacks to antagonize one another for short-term gain.

While these attacks can effectively sway some supporters in elections, the underlying problems in Taiwanese politics remain unsolved. The real losers are the Taiwanese electorate.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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