Taiwan (Republic of China) 2012

Presidential and legislative elections were held in Taiwan (Republic of China) on January 14. The President and all 113 members of the country’s unicameral legislature, the Legislative Yuan, were up for reelection. The President is directly elected to a four-year term, renewable immediately once. There are no runoffs. The Legislative Yuan is now elected to a four-year term instead of a three-year term to synchronize legislative terms with the presidential term. Since a constitutional reform in 2005, 73 of the 113 members are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies, while 34 seats are elected by the supplementary member system on a second ballot. The 6 remaining seats are elected by aboriginal voters through SNTV in two 3-member constituencies (highland and lowland tribes).

The President is elected on a ticket with a Vice President, and once in office he names a Premier, who is the head of the Executive Yuan – basically the cabinet. However, the Premier is not responsible to the legislature (it can depose him in a confidence vote, but he does not seek its confidence upon nomination) and rather reports to the President. In practice, the President is the dominant political actor and the Premier is a sidekick and ally of the president or his party.

Taiwan’s Political System: A Primer

American readers will find many elements of Taiwan’s political system rather similar to the American political system, especially the polarized two-party system. Taiwanese politics are fought not on left-right lines, but rather around the crucial question of whether Taiwan – officially the Republic of China – should become an independent nation or should seek reunification with mainland China.

Taiwan was incorporated in the same political entity as mainland China for only four years during the twentieth century, meaning that the island’s  ties with the mainland are not particularly strong. Taiwan was ceded to Japan by the Qing in 1895, and it only returned to China in 1945 after Japan’s defeat. However, four years later, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) was run out of the mainland by the Communists and forced to flee across the Straits to the island of Taiwan, which the Japanese had been careful of ceding to the KMT and not the Communists. Officially, the KMT’s stay in Taiwan was to be quite temporary, as Chiang was rather confident that he could reconquer the mainland within three years. But, as years passed, lacking American support for such an invasion, Taiwan became the KMT’s inexpugnable stronghold rather than the launching ground of a reconquest of the Communist mainland.

Viewing Taiwan as a base to retake the mainland, the KMT quickly attempted to subdue potential political opposition in Taiwan. Martial law was instituted in 1949 and lifted only in 1987, meaning that Taiwan – the Republic of China – became the KMT’s one-party state. The authoritarian era did not prevent rapid economic growth: Taiwan’s economic miracle and its emergence as a developed economic powerhouse took place during the authoritarian period. At the outset, the KMT, for obvious reasons, promoted Chinese nationalism over any local Taiwanese identity and the loyal  mainlanders who had fled with the KMT in 1949 took up the bulk of government and big business positions at the expense of Taiwan’s ‘local’ Han Chinese population since the 17th century, the Hoklo (or Taiwanese), who originally hailed from Fujian Province. The Hoklo, who spoke Taiwanese Hokkien rather than Mandarin, were excluded from political participation under the KMT regime and received little place in the KMT’s historical discourse which emphasized Chinese nationalism and the Mandarin language as the language of the one China.

Given the Hoklo’s exclusion from political participation, as the democratic unrest movement developed in the 1970s and 1980s in the wake of social inequalities, a rural exodus and labour disputes, it was largely dominated by the Hoklo majority. But even within the KMT there was a slow shift in the power dynamics: President Chiang Ching-kuo, a gradual reformist, sought to shift power towards the bensheng ren (those who lived in Taiwan pre-1949) rather than maintain mainlander/waisheng ren dominance of the system. Following Chiang Ching-kuo’s death in 1988, it was the Taiwanese-born Lee Teng-hui who became President despite the opposition of some conservative mainlanders. Lee would spearhead the movement towards democratization, with the repeal in 1991 of the laws setting up the authoritarian state and the first direct presidential election in 1996, won by Lee.

As the chances of the KMT’s reconquest of the mainland quickly faded by the 1970s, and as the political liberalization of the 1990s opened old taboos, the main political question in Taiwan became the issue of relations with mainland China, the PRC. Taiwan, still officially known as the Republic of China, claims that it is the sole legitimate government for the whole of China. The policy of eventual reunification and, in the meantime, maintaining the status-quo and a progressive liberalization of relations with the PRC, is supported by the pan-blue coalition, led by the KMT. The basis for this policy is the so-called 1992 consensus, which the KMT reads as an agreement between the two Chinas that there is only one China – which includes Taiwan – but the two ‘Chinese governments’ (Beijing and Taipei) have a different definition of who the legitimate ruler of the one China is. Chinese reunification has always been the KMT’s policy, though it is fairly recent that the KMT now supports peaceful diplomatic relations with the PRC. The discourse of reunification has always been set in the historical discourse of the KMT’s Chinese nationalism, which emphasizes the unity of China including the mainland and considers Taiwan as only one province of the broader China. The modern KMT no longer really treats Taiwan as an appendage, and its recent leaders have been rather moderate. Lee Teng-hui’s presidency supported the ‘Taiwanization’ movement, though Lee is now a prominent leader of the pro-independence pan-greens.

Those who oppose reunification or the 1992 consensus generally support the independence of Taiwan, as a sovereign entity separate from mainland China which lays no claim to the mainland. Taiwanese independence is officially supported by the pan-green coalition, led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a party born in 1986 out of the anti-KMT democratic movement. While the KMT’s rhetoric of reunification treats Taiwan as an integral part of a Greater China, the rhetoric of Taiwanese independence is founded in the idea of Taiwanese identity as different from Chinese identity. The Taiwanese identity claimed by the pan-green coalition is largely that of the Hoklo, who, though they are Han Chinese, lived in Taiwan long before the KMT’s mainlanders arrived in 1949 (which entails a much closer identification with Taiwan rather than China, given the long period of Japanese rule in Taiwan which broke links with the mainland) and speak Hokkien rather than Mandarian Chinese. A minority of more radical nationalists would support a unilateral declaration of independence of the Republic of Taiwan, but the DPP has been constrained by two factors to take a more moderate position. The first factor, which is domestic, is the widespread popular support for the status-quo; a recognition that Taiwan’s current position is de-facto independence through sovereign self-rule. The second factor, which is international, is the visceral opposition of Beijing to Taiwanese independence. The PRC considers Taiwan as an integral part of China and views the pan-green movement as a separatist movement within its borders, and threatens to use military force in the case of a declaration of independence. The US is also hostile to Taiwanese independence, for fear of the PRC’s response. The DPP thus tends to blur the difference between Taiwanese independence and sovereignty, while the KMT keenly delineates the two.

Talk of left-right politics are rare in Taiwan, and the parties are defined more by the reunification/independence divide than by traditional categories of left and right. The KMT leans to the right, which is the natural evolution of its old anti-communism and its current support for more economic deals with the mainland, which favours the large businesses in Taiwan. The DPP leans towards the centre-left (and has a strong environmentalist streak), which might be the natural evolution of the DPP out of the largely lower-income Hoklo movement for democratization and reforms in the 1990s. The left-right positioning of the KMT and DPP might also reflect their social bases: the KMT receives support from big business and media elites and the upper-classes, while the DPP has support from lower-income groups including some workers, farmers, fishermen and small business owners. The parties are also defined along ethnic lines, which go hand in hand with the main divide (reunification/independence). The KMT’s cadres have historically tended to be mainlanders, while the DPP’s leaders have tended to be of Taiwanese ancestry (Hoklo).

Since 1996, politics in Taiwan have been structured around the “Taiwan question” (as Beijing calls it) and polarized between the KMT-led pan-blues and the DPP-led pan-greens. In 2000, outgoing President Lee teng-hui caused a crisis in pan-blue ranks which led to the alignment of two pro-reunification candidates against the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian. Lee backed his then-Vice President, Lien Chan, as the official KMT candidate, over the head of the far more popular James Soong, a former KMT leader and former Governor of Taiwan Province. The split of the pan-blue coalition in 2000 paved the way for Chen’s victory with 39% against 37% for Soong and 23% for Lien. Chen, who served as mayor of Taipei between 1994 and 1998, was a long-time leading figure of the DPP and generally considered as one of the party’s more  radical pro-independence members. However, to be elected and once elected, he quickly moderated his intentions and declared that as long as the PRC did not use force against Taiwan, he would not change the country’s name or declare its independence. However, constant gridlock with the KMT-controlled legislature led to his taking a more radical stance. As Chen’s presidency showed, the DPP cannot diplomatically afford to make bold moves but it can make symbolic gestures which serves as sabre-rattling with Beijing. Under his presidency, this included emphasizing ‘Taiwan’ rather than ‘China’ as the country’s name and renaming several state-owned companies to reflect this orientation. Chen was reelected in a narrow and much contested election in 2004, where he took 50.1% of the vote against 49.9% for the Lien-Soong ticket. The election was very much influenced by an attempt on Chen’s life the day before the vote, a controversial assassination attempt which some KMT supporters still claim was a DPP set-up.

Chen’s second term was marked by continued tensions with the PRC and a series of corruption scandals (in which he was directly implicated in) which would eventually sink the DPP in 2008. Fought in this context, the 2008 presidential election marked the KMT’s return with a bang. Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou, a moderate within KMT ranks, was elected in a landslide with 58.5% of the vote.

Ma’s first term will be marked by the rapid advancements in relations between Taiwan and the PRC, which some describe as the most rapid advancements in the six-decade cold war between the two governments. Some of Ma’s policies have included direct weekend charter flights to the PRC, opening Taiwan to mainland tourists, easing restrictions on Taiwanese investment in the PRC and allowing Chinese investors to buy Taiwanese stocks. Similar to Western leaders, Ma has also been cautious when dealing with the issue of Tibet and human rights in China as to not annoy Beijing. Recently, Ma kind of put to foot in his mouth by raising the eventuality of a peace treaty with China, before retracting himself by saying it would require ratification by referendum if it came to be. The pan-green opposition has been very critical of Ma’s policies towards China, accusing him of either selling out the country to the PRC or damaging Taiwan’s sovereignty by taking steps towards reunification. Economically, after weathering a recession in late 2008 and 2009, Taiwan’s economy is now booming: it grew by 11% in 2010 and by 5% in 2011. Unemployment reached 5.9% in 2009 but has since fallen to 4.3%. There is concern, however, over a widening wealth gap and high property prices.

The Election

Ma Ying-jeou ran for reelection. But unlike in 2004 and 2008, the pan-blue coalition split up once again, with James Soong running as the nominee of his own party, the People First Party (PFP), a pan-blue party but always something of a rival for the KMT. Fortunately for the KMT, the PFP’s heyday seems to have been in the early 2000s and the PFP was risking marginalization and potential disappearance into the KMT as its political weight within the pan-blue coalition became less and less important. It won only 8 seats in 2008, almost all of them through an alliance with the KMT. Fearing a repeat of 2000, the KMT tried to dissuade Soong from running, but it was to no avail. The situation, however, is not as threatening to the pan-blues as the 2000 split was. Soong’s heyday was in the 1990s and his popularity peak was in the same period. He was far more popular, at any rate, than Lien who was never well-regarded as Premier or VP. Soong now faces an incumbent KMT president, who has been able to keep the party together and retain decent popularity numbers in the wider electorate.

The DPP was left in shambles following its 2008 rout(s), largely the work of Chen’s corruption scandal. Chen is now serving jail time on charges of embezzlement, bribery and money laundering. Its rebirth so rapidly was quite phenomenal, and largely the work of Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai served as Vice-Premier under Chen between 2006 and 2007 and has largely served a career as a government technocrat with little experience in elected office: she briefly served as a non-constituency member of the legislature and ran (and lost) for mayor of New Taipei in 2010. Despite this and her lack of charisma, she has managed to reunify the divided DPP and make it a credible and viable political actor again. Her campaign has managed to successfully channel discontent with the administration, including its economic policies (seen as helping the richest) and its cross-Straits policy. The DPP opposes the 1992 consensus and sees Ma and the KMT as Beijing’s accomplices in helping the PRC swallow up Taiwan. It claims that all the juicy business deals with the PRC have only benefited big businesses who have the means to do business in the PRC. Though Tsai rejects the 1992 consensus in favour of a vague ‘Taiwan consensus’, she has largely appeared moderate on the cross-Straits issue. She has also built herself an image as a defender of the underprivileged, focusing a good part of her campaign on social issues such as high property prices, income inequalities and so forth.

Given that the new conciliatory policy with the PRC will be the main thing which will come out of Ma’s first term, it is not too surprising that some have styled the election as a referendum on the 1992 consensus. The DPP has never been shy in its opposition to the 1992 consensus, and Tsai promised this vague new ‘Taiwan consensus’. Of course, of the KMT and DPP, the KMT is the only party which is diplomatically in a position to make bold actions given that any bold actions by the DPP would likely risk raising the PRC’s ire (and the US’ opposition as well). So it is not surprising that the DPP cannot afford to detail its Taiwan consensus further, though it can criticize the 1992 consensus and what it entails on a number of different aspects. Ma is running on his record of conciliatory cross-Straits relations, which he styles as the first steps in Taiwan’s “Golden Era” all while warning that a DPP victory would mean the end of such good times and a return to the confrontational relations with the PRC which marked Chen’s terms.

Turnout was 74.38%, down about 2% from 2008. The presidential results are as follows:

Ma Ying-jeou/Wu Den-yih (KMT) 51.60%
Tsai Ing-wen/Su Jia-chyuan (DPP) 45.63%
James Soong/Lin Ruey-shiung (PFP) 2.77%

In terms of the legislative elections, the results are as follows. The percentage vote refers to the party list, some parties like the NPSU did not run a list.

KMT 44.55% winning 64 seats (-17) including 44 FPTP, 4 aboriginal and 16 list
DPP 34.62% winning 40 seats (+13) including 27 FPTP and 13 list
TSU 8.96% winning 3 seats (+3) including 3 list
PFP 5.49% winning 3 seats (+2) including 2 list and 1 aboriginal
NPSU winning 2 seats (-1) including 1 FPTP and 1 aboriginal
Independent winning 1 seat (nc) including 1 FPTP
Green 1.74% winning 0 seats (nc)
NP 1.49% winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 3.16% winning 0 seats (nc)

Pan-Blue (KMT-PFP-NP) 51.48% winning 67 seats (-18)
Pan-Green (DPP-TSU) 43.56% winning 43 seats (+16)

The election is an incontestable victory for Ma and the KMT. Some will inevitably try to compare this election to 2008, in which Ma won 58% and the KMT won a legislative super-majority, but a comparison between 2008 and 2012 is not a fair one. 2008 was fought in a climate of mass disillusion with Chen and the DPP, meaning that anybody could have defeated the DPP’s Frank Hsieh in that year’s presidential contest. 2008 is not a normal election, it was one of those typical anti-incumbent ‘aberrations’ you see in such scenarios. The DPP was really no match to the KMT in 2008, but in 2012 it was. It had managed to rebuild successfully after 2008 and presented voters with an effective, credible and viable candidate who was able to catch discontent with the KMT administration. It is not easy being an incumbent these days, so Ma as an incumbent defending a pretty big and potentially controversial record was in a much more difficult situation than he had been in 2008 as an opposition candidate. Ma managed to win reelection – with 50% – with a pan-blue dissident, a first-rate DPP candidate who ran a very good campaign and as an incumbent defending a major and potentially controversial (for some) record. Viewed as such, his victory and that of the KMT in the legislative elections is pretty formidable.

After Tsai turned the DPP around and put it on the right track with a coherent and credible message, many had thought that she was in a strong position to win, boosted further by Soong who polled 5-10%. Taiwan’s media outlets had come out with polls which had given Ma a narrow single-digit lead, but Taiwan’s media outlets are largely distrusted – especially by the DPP – as they are largely pro-KMT and their polls always tend to overestimate the KMT’s support, meaning that a lead under 3-5% for the KMT in media polls is generally interpreted to mean a tie. A fair number of predictors were predicting that Tsai would win and reading some analyses it appears as if a fair number of commentators also considered Ma as the underdog in the final stretch. In the end, the ‘blue media’ polls were surprisingly spot-on.

A nice part of Ma’s last-minute momentum of sorts which allowed him to win by such a convincing victory was an evaporation of support for Soong, who was polling 6-8% in the last polls (polls could not be published after January 3, however). It is likely that some of his potential “protest vote” support did not materialize and largely abstained, while some potential pan-blue support switched strategically to Ma to prevent a repeat of 2000 where the blues lost to Chen because of their division. For Soong and the PFP, it was a pretty bad result. Soong had a strategic collapse and ended up with a paltry 2.8% of the vote. In the legislative elections, in which the PFP was attempting to display its independence from the KMT (and with quixotic hopes of repeating the successes it experienced in 2001 and 2004). Soong’s candidacy was in part a personal feud with Ma but also an attempt to boost the PFP’s legislative candidates and hope to save the PFP as a credible party in Taiwanese politics after its collapse of sorts after its early successes. The PFP did not have a total flop in the legislative elections, as it managed 5.5% of the vote and 2 seats (plus an aboriginal seat), but overall it hardly remains a viable political actor against the KMT. It risk to be marginalized even further as the KMT will have no need for it.

The DPP had a good race, and as I explained above, it did everything it could and it did everything (or close to it) right. A good candidate, a good campaign and a good message yet it failed to unseat Ma or win a legislative majority (as some predicted). Tsai resigned the DPP leadership following her defeat. 45.6% is the DPP’s second-best showing in a presidential election (avowedly, the sample is hardly big) and it in a much stronger opposition position than in 2008. Yet, it might be worthwhile to ask if the political opinion of Taiwan has some sort of slight natural inclination towards the KMT and reunification. We might be trying to read too much into the result, which could be an incident of a fairly popular incumbent riding a good economy and a successful first-term into a fairly easy reelection. But perhaps a slight majority of Taiwanese favour Ma’s policies of “good relations” (for lack of a better term) with the mainland or at least prefer it to the more confrontational relationship which marked the DPP’s eight-year stint in power. On a final note, it is interesting to note that the TSU – the DPP’s smaller and more radically pro-independence partner – had a very successful election with 9% of the list vote after having collapsed monumentally in 2008. I don’t know what to attribute it to except perhaps some sort of sympathy vote for the TSU’s spiritual leader, Lee Teng-hui, who is suffering from cancer but made several symbolic appearances alongside Tsai in this campaign.

In the legislative elections, the KMT managed to retain its absolute majority pretty easily. The FPTP system might provide a small advantage to the KMT which has maintained a pretty powerful financial advantage and patronage machine which can still do wonders. While the KMT’s majority has been eaten into a bit by the DPP, which was natural given how huge its 2008 majority was to begin with, the DPP failed to make serious inroads. It seems to have reconquered FPTP seats in its southern strongholds, but not much more than that.

Besides the KMT/DPP and their two sidekicks, one independent member was reelected in the Matsu Islands (given how strongly blue they are, I would guess the indie is at least blueish) and one member of the Non-Partisan Solidarity Union (NPSU) was reelected in Taichung-2 without KMT opposition. The NPSU is not a member of either coalition, but it could be considered a de-facto member of the pan-blue coalition.

My presentation of the main cleavages in Taiwanese politics had touched on the main causes of Taiwan’s voting patterns. Ethnicity forms the base of the main divide in voting patterns and explains the geographic opposition between southern Taiwan – a reliably green region – and northern Taiwan, which leans to the KMT. Voters of Hoklo ancestry – those Han Chinese from Fujian Province who settled in Taiwan long before 1949 – make up the bulk of the electorate in southern Taiwan as shown on this map. There is a very strong correlation, for reasons which need not be explained again, between a high percentage of Hoklo ethnicity and voting for the DPP. It certainly explains away why southern Taiwan but also Ilan County in northern Taiwan lean heavily towards the greens. The map of 2004 results by township is almost a perfect replica of the above map of Hoklo identity.

The KMT receives strong support from mainlanders, but also two other groups: the Hakka and the aboriginals. The Hakka, stuck in between the Hoklo-dominated DPP and the historically mainland Chinese-dominated KMT, tend to vote for the KMT by large margins for Ma as shown in Maoli and Hsinchu Counties. The Hakka, who are not unique to Taiwan (they often make up the bulk of Chinese in Southeast Asia), speak the Hakka language (some in Taiwan speak the Hoklo language, Hokkien) and settled in southern China before migrating across Asia including across the Straits. Ma and Tsai are both considered Hakka, though Tsai was born in Taiwan and Ma was born in Hong Kong. Soong May-ling, Chiang Kai-Shek’s wife, was Hakka. Taiwanese aboriginals, who make up 2% of the population and largely live in sparsely populated eastern Taiwan, are the indigenous non-Han Chinese inhabitants of Taiwan. They are Austronesian peoples and lived in Taiwan for roughly 8000 years before Han Chinese immigration began in the 17th century. Often sidelined and forcibly assimilated, Taiwan’s aboriginals could be seen as a solidly green group seeing how the DPP often seeks to promote aboriginal culture while the KMT promotes Chinese nationalism. Instead, they are one of the most reliably blue voting blocs and the aboriginal seats are the definition of ‘safe seats’ for the blues. Part of it stems from the KMT’s patronage machines built up during the KMT’s authoritarian regime in these poor remote areas, but a part of the aboriginal preference for the blue stems from distrust of the Hoklo-dominated DPP, seen as favouring the Hoklo over them.


Posted on January 15, 2012, in China (ROC and PRC), Taiwan. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Your reading on the left wing nature of DPP based on voters of lower income is very wrong, though it is also a popular comment even on mainstream media in Taiwan. DPP is more of a political union between farmers, manufacturing workers, small town intellectuals, and urban upper middle class, if you only read from economic elements. That being said, if you compare DPP voters only within “benshen ren”, they tend to be those with higher income.
    This is sometimes even aware by conservative media through reckoning DPP’s dominance among lawyers, medical doctors, intellectuals, and even bankers.

    DPP tends to perform best in the historical areas with high income, normally near the main train station (which may sound weird to many foreigners – think the City of London and the Liverpool Street Station). Their recent stagnation in Taipei is actually the result of its poor showing among those who move to the cities within one generation (as AKP’s gain of Istanbul), and especially due to its weakness among white-collar workers. Mainlanders disproportionally live in some richer areas also create confusion to the outsiders.

    But yes, KMT this year do secure some success among very large corporates – they even “neutralise” certain business of strong DPP tendency, especially financial sector, which was the retreat preserved to benshen elites during the Martial Law years. But this “Chinese element” do not really alter the traditional base of DPP; rather, it simply limits DPP’s ability to lure swing voters, those new city dwellers with lower income.

    To KMT, they always have a larger base of support due to authoritarian legacy, and it also happens to be one of the richest political entity in the world. Vote buying is a common practice. By all this, even without China KMT would normally win, but not with this result considering very low popular approval.

  2. Turnout was 74.38%, down about 2% from 2008. University exams and nearness of Lunar NY cited as reasons. Exactly why KMT moved election from March.

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