Written by Dongtao Qi.

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 DPP’s disastrous defeat. First, increasingly popular and strong dissatisfaction with the Tsai administration’s performance, especially its many controversial reforms. Second, the so-called “Han wave” led by the Kaohsiung mayoral candidate of the KMT Han Kuo-yu who successfully mobilized various discontented social groups in not only Kaohsiung, but also some other places, to vote against the DPP candidates.

Indeed, these are two obvious reasons for the DPP’s election defeat. The public opinion surveys by Taiwan’s major media had shown the public’s constant decrease of the approval rating 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 loss 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 TEDS2017_PA03 and TEDS2018_PA03 provided by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University, the percentage of voters who support Taiwan’s independence had constantly decreased from 31.1% in 2016 to 26.1% in 2017 and further to 21.9% in 2018, a 9.2% drop from 2016 to 2018. More surprisingly, the young (aged 20-29) voters’ support for independence has dropped even faster, from 48.7% (2016) to 41.6% (2017) and then to 29.2% (2018), a significant 19.6% decline in two years.

On the other hand, while popular support for independence has been decreasing, maintaining the status quo and unification with China has been rising. Specifically, while overall support for the status quo increased moderately by 5.5%, the young voters’ support for it increased significantly by 11.4%, from 2016 to 2018. Similarly, while overall support for unification went up slightly by 3.7%, the young voters’ share rose substantially by 8.1%, 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 constantly and significantly decreasing public identification with the DPP, which is coupled with a rising of independent voters. According to the party identification surveys conducted by the aforementioned institute, since 2009 when public identification with the DPP peaked at 31% in 2015, it had dipped rapidly to 21.7% in June 2018. Public identification with the KMT has been rising moderately since it lost power, from 20.8% in 2016 to 25.3% in 2018, while independent voters who have no party identification had increased substantially from 41.2% in 2015 to 47% 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.

Once more, the surveys 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% (2016) to 42.9% (2017) and then to 26.6% (2018), which had most likely led to their declining support for the DPP as well: from 35.9% (2016) to 21% (2017) and then to 20.9% (2018).

Declining public identification with the DPP coupled with rise of the 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 series of surveys by Academia Sinica, public (aged 18 and above) support for the statement “no matter what, democracy is always the best political system” has been decreasing from 59% in 2000 to 43.2% in 2016, about 1% 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 statement “under some conditions, dictatorship is a better political system than democracy” has increased from almost 16% to over 27% 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 and pragmatic public since 2016. This pragmatic view of democracy is a challenge to the DPP’s election campaign strategy that portrayed itself as the defender of Taiwan’s democracy, while the KMT and mainland China are the authoritarian powers threatening Taiwan’s democracy.

In summary, the three public opinion trends, namely, the declining of Taiwanese nationalism, the rising of independent voters, and an increasingly more pragmatic public view of democracy and dictatorship, have paved the way for the DPP’s defeat in the 2018 local elections. Together, these three public opinion trends have diminished the effect of the DPP’s election campaign, which tried to rally support with nationalism, partisan and democracy issues.

Dongtao Qi is a Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. Image credit: CC by the Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)/Flickr.

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