Four key takeaways from Taiwan’s recent election surprises

A voter reacts during the initial results of Taiwan’s midterm elections in Kaohsiung on Nov. 24. The local elections are crucial to whether Tsai can win a second term in the 2020 presidential election. (Peter Lin/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
A voter reacts during the initial results of Taiwan’s midterm elections in Kaohsiung on Nov. 24. The local elections are crucial to whether Tsai can win a second term in the 2020 presidential election. (Peter Lin/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Taiwan’s midterm elections got a surprising amount of international coverage this November. President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered heavy losses against the opposition Kuomintang Party (KMT), winning only six of 22 districts — and losing nine districts it previously held. Tsai resigned as DPP chairperson and announced a “major reshuffle” for the party.

Foreign news outlets were quick to suggest the defeat of the traditionally pro-independence DPP at the hands of the more pro-China KMT mirrored the slide in U.S.-China relations. The Washington Post headline, for example, read, “Taiwanese president quits party leadership after pro-China rivals claim ballot landslide,” while a New York Times opinion piece asked “Will Taiwan Be the First Domino to Fall to China?

While many in the international media peg the DPP’s loss to Taiwan’s changing attitudes toward China, the reality is more complex. Public opinion in recent years has generally shown most Taiwanese take a pro-status quo position on China relations.

Instead, our research and that of others show the election results reflect other forces. Here are four things to know:

1. Populism is on the rise

Growing numbers of Taiwan voters appear to be rejecting traditional party politics. This played out clearly in Taiwan’s two largest cities, where November’s mayoral races saw strong showings from candidates with anti-establishment credentials. In the capital, Taipei, independent Ko Wen-je won a tough reelection bid by fending off challengers from both mainstream parties. In Kaohsiung, Han Guo-yu, previously a fringe figure in the KMT, trounced his opponent in a traditionally pro-DPP electoral stronghold.

The 2017 Taiwan National Security Survey reports that an all-time high 51 percent of people consider themselves as independents, without any partisan affiliation. Han’s campaign in Kaohsiung, a city with many factory closings, wove economic anxieties with an anti-establishment message, allowing him to attract the growing number of voters who felt they were the “losers” in a unequal society.

2. Liberal values faced a setback

The midterm elections also saw strong pushback from conservatives on marriage equality. Following the Taiwanese Supreme Court’s May 2017 ruling in support of same-sex marriage, a movement spearheaded by conservative Christian groups mobilized for a referendum vote on the midterm ballot.

The November result was a 70-30 margin against marriage-equality measures. This came as a shock for Taiwanese progressives, as pre-referendum polls generally showed positive support for gay rights. Just 7 percent of the population identifies as Christian, but conservative activist groups from the churches showcased their ability to mobilize and obtain backing from the KMT as well as religious organizations.

The result suggests that social conservatives in Taiwan have emerged as a powerful political force. Some conservative groups call for further modification of Taiwan’s Gender Equality Laws, and eliminating sex education in schools. Some groups also have urged the Supreme Court to retract its ruling on marriage equality from last year.

While the Ministry of Justice declared that legislative efforts in the coming months cannot be unconstitutional, conservative opposition has forced Tsai’s government to find new workarounds. Recent reporting suggests the DPP will likely move away from its 2016 pro-marriage equality commitment, and compromise by creating a potentially discriminatory civil partnership law separate from the Civil Code. This pushback suggests that cultural issues have, for the first time in Taiwan’s young democracy, been established as a wedge issue since Taiwan’s democratization in the 1990s.

3. The KMT had a strong rural showing

Another surprising outcome was the KMT’s inroads in rural districts and cities in the south, which previously were DPP strongholds. Scholars have suggested that this was mainly because of the KMT’s ability to mobilize votes through farmers’ associations. Many farmers and local elites were dissatisfied with DPP’s food pricing policies and attempts to wrestle power away from local politicians and staff who have long wielded control over these farmers’ associations.

Here’s an example: the Chang family, whose personal connections occupy critical positions within local and the national farmers’ associations, have made a triumphant political comeback since its former scion Chang Rong-wei was jailed on corruption charges this year. In Yulin County, Chang’s younger sister, Chang Li-shan, ran under the KMT banner and successfully defeated the DPP incumbent. Coincidentally, Kaohsiung mayor-elect Han, who previously worked for one of the largest farmers’ association in Taiwan, is also a close friend of Chang Rong-wei.

With the continued decline of Taiwan’s agricultural sector, many expect local factional support from farming and fishing associations to play minimal roles in future elections. Yet relationships embedded in these traditional social organizations influence public perceptions of a candidate. Han’s campaign in Kaohsiung, for example, did not generate much interest locally since he never held public office there. It wasn’t until Wang Jin-ping, former KMT speaker of the legislature, helped mobilize local factional networks to campaign for the KMT in Kaohsiung that Han’s popularity skyrocketed.

4. The “China factor” remains an important issue — but not in the way you think

Several DPP politicians accused China of electoral interference by spreading misinformation campaigns during this election cycle. The exact impact of these campaigns is difficult to discern, echoing similar debates on whether Russian interference had a true impact on the 2016 U.S. elections.

But Taiwan’s economic relationship with China also tends to shift Taiwan’s domestic politics in subtle ways. Great powers throughout history have shaped the politics of neighboring states not only through coercion but also by altering domestic economic preferences via trade.

In Taiwan, while the public is numerically still pro-status quo when it comes to the China question, a growing urban-rural divide on how bread-and-butter issues should align with cross-strait policy seems to be emerging. While the urban middle class rejected closer economic integration with China by protesting against a services-trade agreement in 2014, this year rural voters responded well to the KMT campaign for more agricultural exports to China.

In short, this election demonstrates how new emerging saliencies of anti-establishment politicians and social conservatism are intertwined with the “old politics” of rural electoral mobilization and cross-strait economic relations. How both of the mainstream parties learn and adapt from these lessons may prove critical to the DPP’s chances of retaining the presidency in 2020.

Kevin Luo is a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto. Fang-Yu Chen is a PhD candidate in political science at Michigan State University.

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