Following the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) victory in the recent legislative by-elections in Greater Tainan and Greater Kaohsiung, hope was restored that the party would return to power. Then last week, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) announced her bid for the DPP’s presidential nomination. With next year’s presidential election not long off and given Taiwan’s polarized political landscape, pitting the pan-blue camp against the pan-green camp, the role of median voters — also known as swing or floating voters — is once again receiving considerable attention.
Some people question the importance of median voters, while others try to organize them to create a third force. Based on the experiences of France and Taiwan, I believe median voters will continue to decide whether the pan-blues or the pan-greens win — more so as the gap between the two camps shrinks.
Like France, Taiwanese politics has long been polarized. For the past 50 years, since Charles de Gaulle took advantage of the Algerian crisis from 1958 to 1962 to create an image of himself as being the “people’s president,” French politics has been characterized by the standoff between the left and right, with both sides convinced that neither can persuade the other to change.
The situation is the same in Taiwan and this polarization will set the stage for Taiwanese politics for some time to come.
The Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) loss in the legislative by-elections did not come as a surprise, nor did the fact that swing voters increased the margin by which the KMT lost. Median voters are strongly independent and will vote for different parties at different times. As party identification among voters is stabilizing, the proportion of swing voters, at about 7 percent, is not far from that in advanced economies. In 2000, they decided Taiwan’s first transfer of political power, and in 2008, they increased the margin by which the DPP lost.
Judging from the strength of the pan-greens and pan-blues and the inclination of median voters to give out “punishing votes,” it will be impossible for leaders of either camp to rely solely on their traditional support bases to win.
From France we can see that while median voters are important, there is limited space for more neutral or centrist political parties. Only once during the 50 years of the current French Fifth Republic did a more centrist political party win a presidential election, with Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who stayed in power for seven years. The rest of the time, presidential elections have either been won by the major left-wing, or, more often, the right-wing party.
Also worthy of attention is the fact that when two major political parties start to affiliate themselves with median voters, more centrist political parties face the risk of being wiped out. This is the awkward situation in which France’s MoDem and its leader Francois Bayrou have found themselves in since 2007. In comparison, the far left-wing French Communist Party and the far right-wing National Front have been able to maintain quite a strong presence. The situation is similar in Taiwan, where support for small and medium-sized parties is still basically measured in relation to the two big parties.
This polarization and the voting habits of median voters offer both challenges and opportunities to politicians from both camps. If the KMT and the DPP continue to ignore the power of median voters, not only will their parties face a constant risk of internal divisions, they will also find it hard to keep their position as the major political parties. The battle for the presidential election is about to start and it will be very interesting to see what happens.
Hu Tsu-ching is an associate professor at Tunghai University’s political science department.
TRANSLATED BY DREW CAMERON
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