Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has suffered one of its biggest electoral upsets since its founding in 1986 in the latest nine-in-one elections, setting the stage for a change in leadership that may have country-wide consequences.

President Tsai Ing-wen stepped down as party chairperson at the DPP’s post-election press conference, accepting responsibility for the party’s poor performance. On the same stage, in almost the exact words, Tsai resigned from the same position only four years ago, following the devastating 2018 local elections, during which the DPP lost seven of the 13 seats it held.

In a column penned in 2018, You Ying-lung, the chairman of Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF), wrote that the DPP had lost two years into the Tsai administration mainly for failing to reflect public opinion.

In 2022, with only six offices left to defend, the DPP still dropped one seat — for a similar reason. During local news channel TVBS’s live election night coverage, TPOF Chairman You said, “there are wide discrepancies between the DPP’s grasp of public opinion and the party’s direction,” resulting in the failure of many of its strategies and candidates in this election cycle.

In 2020, Tsai won reelection by mobilizing voters against the China-friendly opposition Kuomintang (KMT) in the wake of the Hong Kong protests and China’s increased aggressions toward Taiwan. In 2022, Tsai deployed what she saw as a tried-and-true strategy, framing the vote as a means to push back against China. It missed the mark. In local elections, domestic issues have proven to be more relevant to voters.

Another misstep by Tsai in this election cycle could be her decision to handpick candidates for the races in the six special municipalities, or Taiwan’s six largest cities, sidestepping the need for party primaries under the rationale that such competitions would divide the party. The DPP lost four out of the six important mayoral seats, and the defeat in Taoyuan, originally ruled by the DPP, reflected especially poorly on the President. Lin Chih-chien, former Hsinchu Mayor who was selected to run for Taoyuan Mayor, had to withdraw from the race due to allegations of academic plagiarism.

The crushing defeat in the elections marks a low point for Tsai and her faction in the party. This may allow other party heavyweights and factions within the party to take charge, thereby pursuing a more hardline approach on cross-strait issues.

Vice President William Lai and Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wen-tsan were originally believed to be vying for the DPP’s nomination for president, but Cheng has recently declared support for Lai’s 2024 presidential bid, signaling a possible shift in the party’s cross-strait approach. Both are members of the New Tide faction, the largest faction within the DPP, but Cheng is more aligned with the President’s faction, representing a more moderate approach, while Lai takes a hardline pro-independence stance.

Cheng will be termed out as the mayor of Taoyuan by the end of the year. Amid the calls from party members for Premier Su Tseng-chang to step down, many saw the premiership as the perfect stepping stone for Cheng towards presidency. Cheng’s recent declaration for Lai, and implication in an academic plagiarism scandal, has seemingly closed the door on a 2024 bid, but he may still seek the position of Premier.


Photo Credit: CNA

Vice President Lai Ching-te at the Monte Jade Science and Technology Association of Taiwan end-of-year banquet in Taipei, November 30, 2022.

On the other hand, Lai’s ambitions for the presidential office have been clear. In 2019, he challenged Tsai in the party’s presidential primary, putting the DPP’s fractured state after the 2018 local elections on full display. Though Lai lost the primary, many openly questioned the fairness of the primary process.

Lai later joined Tsai on the 2020 ticket in hopes of uniting the party, but the move should be interpreted as a reluctant compromise between party factions against the pan-blue camp. As Vice President, Lai’s work has been more focused on diplomacy, visiting countries like the U.S., Honduras, Japan, and Palau.

Most recently, Lai has registered to run for party chairperson. If elected, Lai will likely lead the party into the 2024 elections, which are only 13 months away. He will also have significant sway over the party’s nomination system, which was why he was initially reluctant to run according to Legislator Kuo Kuo-wen.

Since Lai’s announcement, legislators Chen Ming-wen and Lo Chih-cheng, both of whom are associated with President Tsai’s faction, have declared support for him. This may signal that the two factions have aligned interests in backing Lai for party leader, but it is still too early to conclude that Lai and the hardline pro-independence stance he represents will prevail within the party.

Lai has referred to himself as a “pragmatic Taiwanese independence political worker” on multiple occasions. When asked recently if he would modify his stance on the subject of Taiwanese independence, Lai dodged the question but said that the understanding that Taiwan does not belong to China has become a consensus.

The consensus that Lai alluded to is certainly part of the largely favorable cross-strait legacy that President Tsai will be leaving: maintaining the cross-strait status-quo while highlighting Taiwanese sovereignty. While there’s no clear indication as to whether Lai will choose to deviate from this moderate approach, on his commitment towards Taiwanese independence, he once declared in the Legislative Yuan, “I am a political worker who advocates for Taiwanese independence. No matter what position I hold, that will not change.”

In the 2024 elections, cross-strait relations are likely on the front of the minds of voters, as seen in President Tsai’s reelection campaign, which may give any DPP presidential candidate an immense advantage. The 2022 local elections had little to do with China, but its results may have significant implications for cross-strait relations after Tsai.

In her final remarks as party chairperson, Tsai counseled that in face of the international situation and challenges ahead, Taiwan doesn’t have the luxury of hesitation, and that it must at all times stand firm and proceed forward one step at a time. The same advice should be heeded by her party.

READ NEXT: Taoyuan Mayoral Race Illustrates Hypocrisy in DPP and KMT Strategies

TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.