(Bloomberg) -- Chiang Wan-an was a teenager when his father sat him down to tell him about his heritage: he’s the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Nationalist leader who fought Mao Zedong’s Communists forces before fleeing to Taiwan and ruled it with an iron fist.

Now the younger Chiang, who was a corporate lawyer in the US before entering Taiwan politics several years ago, is running for Taipei mayor in an election that could help restore the popularity of his famous ancestor’s political party, the Kuomintang. The once-dominant party, whose charter still calls for unification with China, has seen support wither.

Invigorated by Chiang’s youthful image and moderate approach on China, a KMT victory in the election Saturday could help the party’s chances at a comeback in national elections. That could also sway cross-strait relations, meaning it’s being watched closely by Xi Jinping, who secured his third term as leader last month.

“If Chiang wins, he could potentially revitalize the KMT by helping the party regain control of Taipei city and giving the party a prominent new political face,” said Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Washington-based Global Taiwan Institute. “The results could produce cascading effects that would have important implications for the 2024 presidential election, and in turn, the situation across the Taiwan Strait.”

The election is being held after a spike in tensions between Taiwan and China this year, with the People’s Liberation Army conducting a barrage of drills around the island. In October, China’s Communist Party enshrined its rejection of Taiwan’s independence into its constitution and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned that Beijing was trying to speed up its seizure of the island. 

A meeting by US President Joe Biden and Xi on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit this month appeared to ease escalation, but it’s unclear how long this will last. Biden has said the US would come to the island’s defense should it be attacked -- something previous leaders have avoided expressing explicitly for fear of provoking China.

Security Concerns

Many voters, particularly older generations with an affinity for the KMT, see Chiang, 43, as the safe choice in these uncertain times. While he may lack the political experience of his main opponent Chen Shih-chung, the 68-year-old former Health Minister and candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Chiang has gained a steady, if unremarkable, reputation as a lawmaker since winning a seat in 2016. 

Although issues in the upcoming ballot are mostly local, voters and political analysts say security concerns are at the top of people’s minds. 

“All I care about now is that I don’t want to see war happening in my life,” said Kathy Wang, a retired 70-year-old. She comes from what many Taiwan people describe as a “blue” family of KMT supporters, with connections to China. 

“I think the ruling party should help us seek peace with China, not war. There is no prosperity without peace,” she said. 

While polls have shown a majority of Taiwanese people are happy to maintain the status quo rather than seek unification or independence, her support for the KMT puts her in the minority. President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP came to power in 2016 and was re-elected in 2020 as her vow to protect Taiwan’s autonomy proved popular amid a crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. 

The KMT, also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party, once ruled China by reunifying a country fragmented by the collapse of its monarchy and battling Japanese invaders. Since moving to Taiwan as Mao’s forces advanced, the party has said it aims to retake the mainland and reunite China’s people, a goal now seen by many as out of date. 

More voters now see themselves as Taiwanese first and foremost, and fewer stand by the dual, Taiwanese-Chinese identity that was more common a few decades ago, viewing Beijing and the prospect of peaceful unification with skepticism. 

“I fear war, but I fear unification even more,” said Sabrina Hong, a 40-year-old local bank worker. “If KMT runs Taiwan’s government, maybe cross-strait ties will be less tense. But it’s concerning that Taiwan may eventually become part of China.”

While many feel that a stronger KMT could help avoid military conflict with China, others believe that the DPP government’s stance of keeping China at arm’s length, combined with support from Western allies, is the best way to extend the status quo.

Tsai hosted US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on a visit in August, prompting China to cut off military and climate talks with the US and fire ballistic missiles over the island. While some saw the trip as provocation, many believe that bolstering Taiwan’s ties with the US and others such as Japan is key to preventing a takeover.  

Chiang showed he was well aware of such concerns during a two-hour debate in early November, emphasizing Taiwan’s democratic values and brushing off suggestions, including from Elon Musk, that Taiwan become a special administrative zone of China.

“There’s no need to even think about such a proposal. I’ll definitely oppose it to the end, and uphold the dignity of the Republic of China,” Chiang said, using the formal name of Taiwan. 

Chiang, whose campaign promises to address the capital’s aging infrastructure and declining population, is also helped by criticism over Chen’s tenure as health minister. Taiwan’s early success at reining in the spread of Covid-19 has been overshadowed by a late spike in cases and criticism over vaccine shortages. 

“He is more moderate and willing to listen,” said Dane Wang, a 43-year-old owner of a tech startup, adding that Chiang’s family background doesn’t matter to him. “What we care about more is what he can bring to the city and his personality.” 

The KMT has the advantage in Taipei, which has a significant presence of “blue” voters. The party is traditionally favored by the island’s establishment and older voters, while the DPP has been more popular among farmers and working-class Taiwanese. 

Complicated Legacy

Chiang’s looks appear to be helping offset some concerns that he can sound scripted and less spontaneous than his more seasoned rivals. Chiang -- a father of two with another on the way -- is often mobbed on the campaign trail by smartphone-wielding female voters demanding selfies. 

The most obvious asset may be his name. But Chiang, who declined to comment for this story, has also been careful about brandishing it. The legacy is slightly complicated: his father John Chiang, former vice premier and foreign minister, was an unrecognized son of Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek. 

Wan-an changed his surname from Chang to Chiang in 2005, when he was 27 and around a decade after his father first told him about his great-grandfather. Chiang has explained the delay as respect for Chiang Ching-Kuo’s widow, who died in 2004. Ching-kuo never publicly acknowledged John and his twin brother as his own. 

Chiang hadn’t always pursued the role of heir to a political dynasty, and focused on venture capital as a lawyer. In a book, he said he turned to politics after seeing a struggling KMT, determined to “commemorate ancestors and show devotion to the country.” He won a seat in legislature in 2016 and was re-elected in 2020.  

He’s likely aware that his name isn’t viewed favorably by all. The KMT’s single-party rule, including leadership by Chiang Kai-shek and his son, is remembered by many as a time of repression. 

While the KMT government shifted toward democratization in the 1990s, its early days of rule in Taiwan were marked by the killing of opponents and attacks on civilians considered sympathetic toward communists. 

Chen made an oblique reference to this during the televised debate. “I won’t ask him to be responsible for what Chiang family did, simply because he is Chiang’s descendant,” he said. 

Huang Shan-shan, Taipei’s former deputy mayor and independent candidate, also took a dig at Chiang, saying she was running on her own merits rather than family connections.

For the DPP, a poor outcome on Saturday could serve as a blow to Tsai, whose term ends in 18 months. She may be forced to resign as party chair, giving her less influence over the party’s 2024 presidential nomination.

A win by Chiang could bolster the KMT’s fortunes. KMT Chairman Eric Chu, who lost to Tsai in 2016, is widely seen as the party’s candidate for the next presidential race, but many say success as mayor could lead to Chiang’s nomination in the future. 

Kharis Templeman, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, said the relatively young Chiang was KMT’s best bet at a comeback, but added that the party still had more work to do to prove its relevance.

“It needs to find ways to reassure Taiwanese voters that it would take security and sovereignty equally as serious as the DPP,” he said. 

--With assistance from Spe Chen.

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