Many analysts will now be arguing avidly about the mayoral elections and referendums. It will take time for full understanding. The election unseated seven Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidates in 13 of the cities that the party had previously held, including the shock defeats in Kaohsiung and Taichung.
Several commentators have already rationalized the election results as coming primarily from failures of the DPP’s social and economic policy broadly. This seems an obvious sort of position for most modern democracies, but can it be modified or challenged?
It is quite possible that the results were more a result of the perceived failure, in particular, of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) China policy, a perception resulting from a retreating sense of “Taiwan national identity” that has been misjudged by politicians and media alike.
A clue to this lies in referendum #13, which asked: “Do you agree that the nation should apply under the name of ‘Taiwan’ for all international sports events, including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?”
The International Olympic Committee has made it clear repeatedly that the name “Chinese Taipei” cannot be changed, because it was determined in the 1981 Lausanne agreement. It is this that made the referendum eminently political.
Unlike the vote for elected officials, in which voters had to be at least 20 years of age, the referendums were open to citizens aged 18 or over, under the amended Referendum Act (公民投票法) passed last year.
The results are not advisory, but mandatory, so we might suppose that Taiwanese were especially considerate of the political impact of their voting.
That referendum #13 was clearly rejected by the electorate is in contradiction of the trend of opinion among pundits and academics about the nature of Taiwanese identity and the present condition of identity politics.
This could be interpreted as a fatal blow to those who have been calling since February for a referendum on April 6 next year to explicitly address the subject of a “Taiwanese identity” referendum.
Statistical analysis from Academia Sinica show that in 2013, public opinion in Taiwan reached a peak of about 65 percent of citizens feeling “as or more” Taiwanese than Chinese on broadly political grounds, with this declining to about 58 percent by this year.
The period of most sudden drop was between 2013 and 2014, especially associated with the youthful Sunflower movement and then by the great victory of the DPP in 2016.
Opinion polls have recently identified a drop in the support for the DPP of about 10 percent as well as a rise in the proportion of voters identifying with a good range of independent candidates.
The figures from the Central Election Committee show that of 10,537,642 valid votes for referendum #13, a total of 5,774,556 valid votes were dissenting, and this vetoed the proposition.
This result certainly challenges any simple notion that Taiwanese political and cultural identities have shifted toward being more confidently Taiwanese and increasingly less Chinese.
Regions varied of course. Within Kaohsiung, which overall was marginally dissenting, the Yancheng (鹽埕), Qiaotou (橋頭) and Meinong (美濃) districts were clearly assenting to the more radical nationalist change, the Gushan (鼓山), Zuoying (左營) and Maolin (茂林) districts all dissenting clearly, with smaller districts such as Taoyan (桃源) and Namaxia (那瑪夏) particularly so.
In contrast, Chiayi County was fairly clearly in assent overall, with most townships in roughly equal agreement, a notable exception being Alishan, which had one of the highest percentages of valid dissenting votes in the nation (80 percent).
This leads to our second query, the extent of influence the national identity issue exerts over Taiwanese politics more broadly.
What is the evidence so far in these elections and referendums as indicated at this early stage?
Has the apparent move away from “Taiwanese identity” to a more Chinese sense of self-hood been simply part and parcel of moves away from the DPP for other reasons (youth unemployment, accommodation and pollution problems, issues of gay rights and marriage), particularly ones of special concern to young citizens, or has identity politics in fact begun once again to determine trends in political adherence?
If we cross-reference mayoral victories with voting on referendum #13 in different regions, we do find some association of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) victories with dissent from the proposition (New Taipei City, Taichung and Kaohsiung); and in line with this, an association of DPP victories with assent to it (Tainan and Chiayi).
There are notable outliers, such as Taoyuan, where a DPP victory was associated with an overall dissenting win for referendum #13, but there might be special local factors at work in quite a few cases, given the rise of independent and new party candidates throughout Taiwan in recent years.
At this stage then, a very tentative conclusion might be that the identity politics trend, as illustrated indirectly in referendum #13, is not as pundits have generally thought and that there might be an accelerated decline in the proportion of Taiwanese who are moving toward a demand for greater national identity and autonomy from China.
Whether this is because of some natural cultural drift, because of genuine and deep feelings of essential Chinese-ness in Taiwan, especially linked with family ties and employment in China, or because Chinese so-called “sharp power” activities have been very effective, is at present really difficult to decipher.
Perhaps of greater importance, identity politics as indirectly measured by referendum #13 is simply of some, but by no means decided, importance in voting behavior.
The voting associations itemized here are not especially strong and many referendums — not just #13 — hover around the traditional 50-50 voting patterns of a two-party system. This is true also of most of the mayoral voting.
As in other democracies, this middling balance arises from many factors.
Since 2016, it is clear enough that Taiwan has increasingly become a focus of China’s “sharp power” pressure tactics, with increased challenges through territorial disputes, isolating Taiwan through commercial pressures on its allies, reducing the number of Chinese tourists and a variety of military demonstrations and threats, alongside multiplying attempts to influence and narrow the Taiwanese media culture.
The obvious question arises — has this resulted in a toxic environ of fear within Taiwan that has swung real weight behind the KMT, or has there been a genuine resurgence of “Chinese identity” among the electorate?
Does voting on referendum #13 primarily result from fear of China engendered by DPP policies, or from increased identity with China resulting from recent Chinese interferences in Taiwan that have been politically effective?
After all, a principal theme of the DPP prior to the elections was the growing interference of China in Taiwanese politics especially through the “sharp power”’ discord associated with media infiltration and disinformation.
This more insidious approach is also seen in the so-called “31 measures” from Beijing targeting Taiwanese who want to work in China, of especial interest to young voters.
Perhaps Beijing now believes that threatening and intimidating Taiwan has never ended up well, and has at least partially turned to such softer measures, addressing the issues that young Taiwanese face more immediately — the opportunity to develop their careers and connect to international society.
On the other hand, many Taiwanese recognize the commercial benefits that have arisen and might continue to stem from close commercial, technical and cultural relations with China. Such factors might not be naively definable as merely benign or purely economic, but they are clearly something different from the newly identified more purposeful and covert “sharp power” of the alternative explanation.
This point of view should be seen against the backdrop of recent DPP failures — domestic economic slowdown and tardiness of the New Southbound Policy, a perception of growing political elitism, very similar to that now witnessed in such democracies as the US, the UK and France, and a lack of fundamental alteration to the emotive and personalized election culture established since the Taiwanese democratic transition.
Such background elements support the foreground confrontations in the elections. This is shown in the Kaohsiung result. This erstwhile radical city voted for the KMT’s Han Kou-yu (韓國瑜) for his refusal to exploit negative emotions and personality differences, or launch personal attacks. He also publicly reminded his supporters to be rational and respectful to his opponents.
In comparison to his DPP opponent, Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁), Han’s more grassroots personality, plus his experience from his previous position of dealing with farmers and the working class, successfully forged natural links with a cross-section of Kaohsiung residents and did not rely on an elitist background.
In this context his optimistic progressive vision of building Kaohsiung into an ocean city, international and open to all foreign visitors or investors became both appealing and unusually transparent.
Such local appeals in the face of what seemed to be repeated and rather tired elitist political gaming might have ensured that strong established positions were eschewed by the electorate when voting locally in favor of more experimental possibilities.
People were simply frustrated by traditional dualisms generated by the two-party system as it stands. In this situation the weak positive associations between electoral voting and attitudes to “identity” as problematically indicated by answers to referendum #13, might mean very little.
Finally, if the “China question” hovered over or around recent elections in Taiwan, it remains questionable whether the slightly more positive attitude to relations with China exhibited by referendum #13 was real, or was created by fear of Chinese future actions, or resulted from effective Chinese “persuasions” within Taiwan itself. Time will tell.
Ian Inkster is a professorial research associate at the Center of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London; a senior fellow at the Taiwan Studies Program, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham; and the editor of the international journal History of Technology. Victoria Hsin-hsin Chang is a graduate of foreign languages in Taiwan, and of sociology and international politics in the UK. She works as a media editor and translator in Taiwan.
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