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Taiwan’s big election question

2016 Taiwan presidential frontrunner Tsai Ing-wen, Chair of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) 2016 Taiwan presidential frontrunner Tsai Ing-wen, Chair of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) CSIS
14 Jan
Few national elections can compete with Taiwan for the symbolism and identity politics tested at the ballot box. But could a maturing electorate be moving on from focusing on its relationship with China?

On 16 January the people of Taiwan head to the polls. Elections in Taiwan – which have taken place since 1996 – have essentially been a straight knockout between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The KMT ruled over the island – where it fled to after defeat by the communist revolution on the Chinese mainland – between 1949 and 2000, including winning the first democratic election. However, a DPP breakthrough in 2000 saw the presidency out of KMT hands for the first time, before victory in 2008 put current President Ma Ying-jeou back in the hotseat for the KMT.

The coverage of these recent elections, held every four years, has told a similar narrative and 2016 is no different. News headlines such as ‘The Battle for Taiwan’s Soul’ or ‘The Fight Over Taiwan’s Identity’ have already done the rounds, focusing strongly on simple ideological and existential questions about Taiwan and Taiwanese identity. Are the island inhabitants Taiwanese or Chinese? Or both? Should they embrace their close proximity to the People’s Republic of China, the historical origin of the Republic of China (Taiwan)? Or should their neighbour, the world’s largest country by population, be shunned despite the warnings from Beijing that China remains firmly committed to eventually taking control of Taiwan, by force if necessary?

‘A common misconception about Taiwanese elections is that it’s all down to China-Taiwan relations or the unification versus independence debate,’ says Dr Dafydd Fell, Director of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). ‘Of course these are salient issues and there are years when such matters have overshadowed other topics, such as 1996. With the campaign being so long and combined with parliamentary elections, a range of issues have been discussed. Moreover, social movements have also pushed candidates to take clearer stances on a range of issues. For example, long-term care, health insurance, gay marriage, nuclear power, pensions and the death penalty have all received attention.’

2012Results of the 2012 Taiwanese Presidential election, with DPP support concentrated in the south of the country (Image: Foxy1219)

The 2016 election is a contest between Tsai Ing-wen, the defeated 2012 DPP candidate, and KMT chairman Eric Chu – who replaced the previously nominated Hung Hsiu-chu when her campaign failed to ignite support. While the 2012 results map above may appear to show an overwhelming victory for the KMT, it is worth noting that the east coast states are rural, highly mountainous, and therefore sparsely populated. Instead, the election was won by Ma with just 51.6 per cent of the vote (down from 58 per cent in 2008) against Tsai’s 45.6 per cent (up from the 41 per cent by her predecessor Frank Hsieh), a trend which the DPP hopes to exploit.

‘I am proud to say Taiwan's democracy is now much more mature,’ says Dr Fang-long Shih, Research Fellow at the LSE Asia Research Programme. ‘Tsai has, after the last four years' struggle, become a different person and she seems to be a much stronger female leader. Meantime, Taiwan citizens have also changed; they are less victimised and angry, but more self-disciplined and respectful of difference and her feminity.’

Historically, the narrative between the two main parties has been seen to be entirely related to Taiwan’s relationship with China. The PRC was once seen as being a backwards society on Taiwan’s doorstep, but China is now a dominating geopolitical presence, not just in Asia but around the world. The recent tenure of the KMT and President Ma has seen the signing of trade deals, the opening of cross-strait commercial flights, and even an official meeting between the two countries’ leaders in Singapore last year. The KMT, therefore, has generally been portrayed as the relatively pro-China party, while its rival, the DPP, is strongly pro-independence.

So, with Tsai comfortably leading her KMT rival in the polls, what might the outcome of a DPP victory be? ‘The post election state of China-Taiwan relations are hard to predict,’ says Fell. ‘The DPP is trying to look moderate and pragmatic. The KMT is trying to use the terror message that a DPP victory will lead to instability and a setback in cross-Strait relations. Much will depend on how the PRC reacts to the conciliatory moves from the new government. Another variable will be the [size of the] majority Tsai receives and also whether she has a majority in parliament. There are sure to be some challenges in China-Taiwan relations. For instance, can the supervisory legislation for cross-Strait agreements be passed and can cross-Strait talks be maintained?’

‘The KMT was quite effective at using China-Taiwan relations as a tool to attack the DPP in 2012,’ he continues. ‘It has tried the same tactic in 2015-16 but it does not seen to have been effective. This is partly because the DPP has tried to be more moderate on China, for instance stressing maintaining the status quo, not using the argument that the KMT is selling out Taiwan or denouncing the 1992 consensus. Equally important though is the shift in public opinion to a more cautious position on relation with China.’

sunflowersProtestors from the Taiwan ‘Sunflower movement’ (Image: tenz1225)

This caution was most visible in spring 2014, when the so-called ‘Sunflower movement’ saw crowds of people protesting against the government’s latest trade deal with the PRC, which the protestors argued would damage the Taiwanese economy and make finding work harder for people in Taiwan, particularly young people. ‘The Sunflower movement received significant public backing in 2014,’ says Fell, ‘but probably such a movement would have struggled in 2008-9.’ It is against this new backdrop of public opinion that the 2016 election has been contested.

The KMT is generally seen as the more socially conservative of the parties, certainly when compared to its rival, with Tsai, a former lawyer, having frequently spoken out in favour of the protection of human rights, LGBT rights and same-sex marriage. The DPP heartland is, generally, the southwest of the country, among the young and liberal residents of Kaohsiung and Tainan, whereas east, north and central populations have traditionally favoured the KMT. The northern capital Taipei, while more metropolitan than most of the country, has almost entirely voted for KMT mayors in the past, including both Eric Chu and the outgoing President Ma. The southern city of Kaohsiung has instead been governed by former political activist Chen Chu since 2006, part of an unbroken chain of DPP governance since 1998.

This year, however, this trend may be set to shift significantly. ‘It was clear that the balance had shifted quite radically in the 2014 [local] elections when the DPP won key victories in the north and central areas,’ explains Fell. ‘Currently it looks like the DPP will have some important breakthroughs in these areas. In many ways the parliamentary election is the most interesting in 2016. In the past the DPP had never won a parliamentary majority and I had been critical of its overemphasis on presidential campaigns and neglect of parliamentary elections. The fact that the DPP has a real chance of a majority makes this an historic election. Another historic dimension is the fact that alternative parties that are not just splinters of the KMT and DPP are running serious campaigns and have a real chance of entering parliament. It means there is a possibility of real change and greater diversity in parliament.’

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