Local Election in Taiwan: Results not an Endorsement of a more Pro-China Stance
On November 26, the ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP) suffered heavy losses in Taiwan’s local election. Many international observers may wonder what such results tell us about Taiwanese people’s opinion on cross-strait relations. The answer, arguably, is “not much.”
A quick glance at total votes received reveals how support for the DPP has plummeted. This time round, DPP candidates for mayor and county magistrates only received 4,743,468 votes in total. However, back in the 2020 presidential election, DPP’s Tsai received 8,170,231 votes (8,070,966 excluding Chia-Yi City, which did not hold an election this time as a candidate died during the campaign period). To put this in perspective, amongst 100 eligible voters, 42 turned out for Tsai in 2020, but only 25 did so for DPP candidates this time round – a 40% drop.
Yet, this did not imply a surge in support for Kuomintang (KMT). Quite the opposite, KMT candidates for mayor and county magistrates received 5,701,977 votes in total. In comparison, 5,522,119 voted for KMT’s Han Kuo-Yu in the presidential election in 2020 (5,465,850 excluding Chia-Yi City). This represents an increase of less than 10 percent – a number dwarfed by how much ground the DPP has lost.
Therefore, any interpretation of the election result that is based on how voters have allegedly flocked to the KMT would clearly be false. Voters did not endorse the KMT’s stance on China or any other issue any more than they did in 2020; they merely did not turn out for the DPP.
Local elections are, of course, different from national elections. For those who are more interested in analyzing how local candidates (especially incumbents running for reelection) fared individually, a comparison with the 2018 local elections may also be fruitful. However, this article focuses on the 2020 presidential election, as that election represents the historic high watermark of the DPP’s support nationwide – which has been widely described by international observers such as the BBC as a “rebuke to China's growing influence.” This was also why President Tsai Ing-Wen stated in a campaign video this time that “a vote for DPP candidates is a vote for [me]” – evidently to no avail. Therefore, for readers more interested in the big picture – those who are wondering “where did Tsai’s voters go?” – a comparison with the 2020 election can provide crucial insights.
More generally, to correctly interpret election results in Taiwan, it is important to bear in mind that an overtly pro-China stance has no market here. Unlike the left vs. right partisan divide in many Western countries, a pro-independence vs. pro-unification divide does not exist in Taiwan. Instead, election results in any given election are largely decided by the extent to which voters think the status quo is threatened.
According to surveys conducted by the Election Study Center of the National Chengchi University, support for unification has constantly been lower than 10%. My analysis of surveys conducted by Academia Sinica (the most prestigious research institute in Taiwan) has also shown that more than 70% identifies as Taiwanese and Taiwanese only, i.e., not Chinese. Moreover, although only one quarter supports declaring independence outright, this is largely out of a fear for war – when asked if they would support independence “if peace could be maintained with the CCP,” more than two-thirds say yes. Pro-China voters do exist, but they are firmly in the minority.
Consequently, even so-called pro-China politicians, especially those that are politically savvy, have largely steered clear of related issues. For instance, 2012’s presidential election, the KMT’s Ma Ying-Jeou did not win on a pro-China platform. Instead, he presented cross-strait relations through an economic lens. He asserted economy and politics could be decoupled through “putting aside” political disagreement with the PRC by means of the so-called 1992 consensus. His goal was to persuade voters that economic cooperation with China would bring about prosperity without compromising Taiwan’s autonomy. His famous retort to the DPP’s various criticisms was that he only sought to sell Taiwan’s products to China, not selling out Taiwan to China. The KMT’s heavy defeat in 2016 has been widely attributed to how the public opinion on the possibility of decoupling economy with politics had shifted during Ma’s failed attempt to pass the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) and the ensuing Sunflower Movement in 2014.
On the flipside, Tsai’s landslide victories in 2016 and 2020 happened because she was successful in galvanizing support through persuading voters that Taiwan’s democracy and the status quo were at stake – which is why the PRC government’s brutal crackdown in Hongkong proved so important for Tsai’s reelection bid.
This time round, no comparable events took place. Instead, minor events such as scandals involving some candidates’ dissertations represented the most prominent news stories in this election cycle. The lack of a clearly defined theme reduced turnout – which hurt the DPP way more than the KMT.
In sum, the election results this time do not suggest that voters back the KMT’s position on cross-strait relations, let alone a pro-China stance. The KMT prevailed this time not because it convinced more people to vote for its candidates, but because the DPP failed to mobilize would-be supporters.
*Da-Wun Sie is a doctoral student in Sociology at National Taiwan University. He also works as a freelance journalist.