The results of Taiwan’s 2018 nine-in-one local elections surprised many observers. Surely many of them had been anticipating the DPP’s loss in both votes and seats in the elections, but almost nobody had foreseen that the DPP would be defeated by the KMT so badly. Most observers agree that two factors significantly contributed to the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) debacle. The first factor is the increasingly popular and strong dissatisfaction with the Tsai administration’s performance, especially its many controversial reforms. The second is the so-called “Han wave” led by the Kaohsiung mayoral candidate of the Kuomintang (KMT), Han Kuo-yu, who successfully mobilized various discontented social groups in not only Kaohsiung, but also some other cities, such as Taichung, to vote for the KMT.
Indeed, these are two obvious reasons for the DPP’s election debacle. The public opinion surveys by Taiwan’s major media had shown the public’s constant decrease of approval for the Tsai administration, and in contrast, a significant increase of support for Han before the elections. However, three other important public opinion trends that paved the way for the DPP’s debacle and the KMT’s victory are largely missing in the discussion of the elections.
The first set of public opinion trend is declining public support for Taiwan’s independence, and rising support for both status-quo and unification with mainland China. According to and provided by the , the percentage of voters who support Taiwan’s independence had constantly decreased from 31.1 percent in 2016 to 26.1 percent in 2017 and further to 21.9 percent in 2018, a 9.2 percent drop from 2016 to 2018. More surprisingly, the young (aged 20-29) voters’ support for independence has dropped even faster, from 48.7 percent (2016) to 41.6 percent (2017) and then to 29.2 percent (2018), a significant 19.6 percent decline in two years.
On the other hand, while popular support for independence has been decreasing, that for maintaining the status quo and for unification with China have been rising, respectively, which was also more obvious among young voters. Specifically, while overall support for the status quo increased moderately by 5.5 percent, the young voters’ support for it increased significantly by 11.4 percent, from 2016 to 2018. Similarly, while overall support for unification went up slightly by 3.7 percent, the young voters’ share rose substantially by 8.1 percent, in the last two years.
This data clearly indicates that Taiwanese nationalism has been declining since the DPP took power in 2016, which was definitely not a good news for the DPP, especially when its local election campaign tried to rally support around nationalistic issues. Furthermore, larger decline of nationalism among young voters may help us better understand their parallel declining support for the DPP in the local elections.
The second set of the public opinion trend is the constantly and significantly decreasing public identification with the DPP, which is coupled with a rising number of independent voters. According to conducted by the aforementioned institute, since 2009 when public identification with the DPP peaked at 31 percent in 2015, it had dipped rapidly to 21.7 percent in June 2018. Public identification with the KMT has been rising moderately since it lost power, from 20.8 percent in 2016 to 25.3 percent in 2018, while independent voters who have no party identification had increased substantially from 41.2 percent in 2015 to 47 percent in 2018. The number of independent voters is larger or equal to the total number of loyal supporters for the DPP and KMT in 2017 and 2018. These phenomena have rarely been seen in the past 20 years. Another found that percentage of independent voters was already over 50 percent in 2017, which was a record high.
Taiwan’s election history suggests that when the party in power loses badly in local elections, it would lose the coming presidential and legislative elections as well.
Once more, show that young voters’ identification with Tsai and the DPP had dived even more significantly from 2016 to 2018. Their support for Tsai had dropped rapidly from 63.6 percent (2016) to 42.9 percent (2017) and then to 26.6 percent (2018), which had most likely led to their declining support for the DPP as well: from 35.9 percent (2016) to 21 percent (2017) and then to 20.9 percent (2018).
Declining public identification with the DPP coupled with the rise of independent voters can help us understand the DPP’s election defeat on the one hand, and Han Kuo-yu’s and Ko Wen-je’s victory in Kaohsiung and Taipei, respectively, on the other. It is believed that the independent voters’ support was key to both of their victories.
The third set of public opinion trend is a constant declining of the unconditional popular support for democracy, and a rising conditional support for dictatorship since 2000. According to a , public (aged 18 and above) support for the view “no matter what, democracy is always the best political system” has been decreasing from 59 percent in 2000 to 43.2 percent in 2016, about 1 percent drop each year on average. Among all the age groups, young (aged 18-39) voters’ unconditional support for democracy had declined the most. On the other hand, support for the view “under some conditions, dictatorship is a better political system than democracy” has increased from almost 16 percent to over 27 percent during the same period of time.
Because the 2016 survey was conducted by the end of November, about half a year since Tsai assumed office, it seems that she and her administration have been facing an increasingly realistic, pragmatic and critical public since 2016. The DPP was indeed the leading force for Taiwan’s democratization, having terminated the KMT’s over half-a-century of one-party rule through popular election in 2000 and then remaining in power until 2008. As a result, the DPP is often believed to be more pro-democracy than the KMT. During the 2018 local elections, the DPP tried again to portray itself as the defender of Taiwan’s democracy, while the KMT and China as the authoritarian powers threatening Taiwan’s democracy.
However, the public’s view of democracy and dictatorship has become increasingly more critical and pragmatic, which challenges the DPP’s traditional and simplistic rhetoric of democracy versus dictatorship. Taiwanese society seems to have developed a deeper understanding of democracy after experiencing democracy for over two decades with both parties taking turns at the helm, which makes it more immune to the DPP’s pro-democracy rhetoric. After the local elections, the DPP seemed cognizant of this fact when Acting Chairman told the media that the DPP should not have always emphasised its contribution to Taiwan’s democracy.
In summary, three public opinion trends, namely, the decline of Taiwanese nationalism, the rise of independent voters, and an increasingly more pragmatic public view of democracy and dictatorship, had paved the way for the DPP’s debacle in the 2018 local elections. Together, these three public opinion trends diminished the effect of the DPP’s election campaign, which tried to rally support around nationalism, partisan and democracy issues.
Taiwan’s election history suggests that when the party in power loses badly in local elections, it would lose the coming presidential and legislative elections as well. The largest challenge for the DPP in the face of the 2020 presidential and legislative elections is how to reconnect itself with the new public opinion trends that are most likely to continue, and as a result, increasingly unfavorable for the party. Without serious provocative stimulation from China that could generate united backlash from the Taiwanese society, it is extremely difficult for the DPP to revive support among the increasingly more realistic, pragmatic and critical public before the next elections in 2020.
A shorter version of this essay has been published in .