Concerns over threats from rival China, which claims Taiwan as its territory, took a back seat to more local issues in the election.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has resigned as head of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after its strategy of framing local elections as a show of defiance against China’s rising belligerence failed to pay off and garnered public support.
Tsai tendered her resignation on Saturday evening, a tradition after a great loss, in a short speech in which she also thanked supporters.
“I have to take all the responsibility,” she said. “Faced with a result like this, there are many areas that we need to thoroughly review.”
Elections for mayors, provincial leaders and municipal councilors will ostensibly address domestic issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and crime, and those elected will not have a direct say in Chinese policy.
But Tsai recast the election as more than a local vote, saying the world is watching Taiwan defend its democracy amid military tensions with China, which claims the island as its territory.
The main opposition party, the Kuomintang, or KMT, led or claimed victory in 13 of the 21 mayor and district chief seats up for grabs, including the capital Taipei, compared to the DPP’s five, largely in line with expectations and similar to the results of the last local elections in 2018.
“The results exceeded our expectations. We humbly accept the results and accept the decision of the Taiwanese people,” Tsai told reporters at party headquarters as she stepped down as party leader, which she did after the poor results of 2018.
“It’s not like the DPP has never failed before,” added Tsai, who will remain president until 2024. “We don’t have time to feel sorry. We have fallen, but we will rise again.”
Tsai said she turned down an offer of resignation from the prime minister, Su Tseng-chang, also a senior DPP member, adding that she had asked him to remain in office to ensure her policies were properly implemented.
The cabinet said Su had agreed to stay because of the need for stability amid the “tough” domestic and international situation.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said the result showed that the mainstream of Taiwanese public opinion favored peace, stability and “a good life”, and that Beijing would continue to work with the Taiwanese people to promote peaceful relations and resist against Taiwan independence and foreign interference.
Both the DPP and KMT, which have traditionally favored close ties with China, though strongly denied being pro-Beijing, had concentrated their campaign efforts in Taiwan’s wealthy and populous northern part, particularly Taipei, where the mayor of the small Taiwanese People’s Party could not run again due to term limits.
The KMT has accused Tsai and the DPP of being overly confrontational with China and smearing the party for being “red” — a reference to the Chinese Communist Party’s colors.
It focused its campaign on criticism of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially after a spate of cases this year.
KMT Chairman Eric Chu celebrated their victory, but said they would also protect Taiwan’s freedoms.
“We will insist on defending the Republic of China and protecting democracy and freedom,” he told reporters, using the name Taiwan for himself. “We will also work hard to maintain regional peace.”
China staged war games near Taiwan in August to express its anger at a visit to Taipei by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and its military activities continued, albeit on a smaller scale.
The elections came a month after the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, where President Xi Jinping secured an unprecedented third term in office – a point Tsai made repeatedly during his campaign.
Attention now turns to the 2024 presidential and legislative elections, which Tsai and the DPP won in a landslide victory in 2020 on a pledge to stand up to China and defend Taiwan’s freedoms.
Tsai is serving her second term and cannot run for president again due to term restrictions.