By Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Attention is turning to Taiwan's next presidential election in 2024 after the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was thrashed at local elections on Saturday, with President Tsai Ing-wen's move to focus on China backfiring with voters.
The main opposition party the Kuomintang, or KMT, romped to victory in the mayoral and county elections, winning 13 of the 21 seats up for grabs, including the wealthy and cosmopolitan capital Taipei, in line with expectations.
None of those elected have direct say in policy on China.
China views the island as its own territory and has been ramping up military activities to assert those claims, fuelling global concern especially given Taiwan's major role as a semiconductor producer.
The KMT traditionally favours close ties with China but strongly denies being pro-Beijing. It had been on the back foot since 2020's presidential election loss, and also suffered a blow last December after four referendums it had championed as a show of no confidence in the government failed.
Speaking to reporters late on Saturday at party headquarters, its chairman Eric Chu said the KMT understood that only by uniting could it win.
"Taiwan's people have given us an opportunity," he said. "Being selfless is the only chance that the KMT could win the 2024 election."
Tsai resigned as DPP chairwoman after the defeat, the worst showing in the party's history, and is now left with just five mayor or county chief positions.
She had framed the vote as being about showing defiance to China's rising bellicosity, especially after it held war games near the island in August and President Xi Jinping, who has vowed to bring Taiwan under Chinese control, won an unprecedented third term in office last month.
But Tsai's strategy failed to mobilise voters, who disassociated geopolitics from the local elections which traditionally focus more on issues from crime to pollution.
Turnout on Saturday was at record low, just 59% for Taiwan's six most important cities, compared to an overall figure of around 75% in 2020.
China has been distracted with its own internal problems, including unrest linked to its zero-COVID policy.
Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said last week Taiwan was seeing less Chinese interference ahead of the local elections, possibly due to China's own domestic problems and its efforts to improve its international image.
DPP Secretary-General Lin Hsi-yao told reporters the party will perform a "review" of what went wrong, declining to comment directly on their tactic of making the China issue such an important one.
The KMT had focused its campaign on issues like the COVID-19 pandemic, especially after a surge in cases this year and whether the government favoured a local vaccine over imported ones.
In a Sunday editorial, Taiwan's pro-DPP Liberty Times newspaper said it was tougher to motivate voters at local elections using "abstract political ideas", and warned the DPP could face distracting splits in deciding its 2024 presidential candidate.
"Tsai Ing-wen's second term is halfway through, and the issue of succession may breed internal contradictions, damaging the combat effectiveness of having all guns pointing outwards."
Vice President William Lai, considered by party sources the most likely candidate for 2024 and who took a high profile campaigning role for the local polls, apologised on his Facebook page on Saturday for the poor performance, but did not address his future.
Still, the DPP did recover after a similar trouncing in 2018's local elections to win a landslide at the presidential and parliamentary polls in 2020, after successfully portraying a vote for the KMT as a vote for China in the wake of a bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.
The KMT bristles at accusations it will sell out Taiwan to China or is not committed to democracy, but accuses the DPP of deliberately hyping confrontation with Beijing for political benefit.
The DPP denies this and Tsai has repeatedly offered to hold talks with China, which have been rejected as Beijing views her as a separatist.
"The KMT's landslide victory doesn't mean a pro-Beijing political atmosphere in Taiwan is being shaped. The KMT is not a pro-Beijing party, either," said Huang Kwei-bo, an associate professor of diplomacy at Taipei's National Chengchi University and a former KMT deputy secretary general.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee; Editing by Kim Coghill)