In less than a week the Taiwanese voters will vote for their new President and their new parliamentary representatives. These elections may mark in a decisive way not only the domestic politics of the island, but also the geopolitical balance of the East-Asia region. Understanding Taiwan electoral scenarios and their dynamics it will be possible to better understand the possible actions of other actors of the region, starting from the main neighbor of the island, the People’s Republic of China.
Three candidates and one seat
As it is known for those that are sufficiently familiar with Taiwanese politics, the main political cleavage of the Country, looking both at the voters and at the party system, is the one between the supporters of an enhanced cooperation (if not a formal unification) between Taiwan and China, and the supporters of a strategy that would weaken the relationship between the two countries (or lead to a formal declaration of independence of the island from China). Nevertheless, as for all the voters of plural and complex democratic polities, various factors shape the political orientation of Taiwanese people, thus the choice for a specific candidate or a specific party/coalition can change according to the context for specific elections or other issues. The evaluation of candidates’ profiles, especially for a presidential race, represents one of the variables.
The race for Taiwan presidency is run by three candidates: Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Han Kuo-yu of the Chinese nationalist party Kuomintang (KMT), and Soong Chu-yu of People’s First Party (PFP). First woman elected president of the island, first DPP president supported by a parliamentary majority, Tsai governed the island during the last four years with very low approval ratings – in fact, a characteristic of almost all the former Taiwanese democratic administrations. After the DPP defeat at 2018 local elections and after stepping down as chairman of her party, the political career of Tsai seemed doomed. However, as it is possible to see on the interactive graph below, the current president has been protagonist of a comeback that is projecting her toward a second term. The main competitor of the incumbent is the Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu.
Former KMT representative between 1993 and 2002, stepped into the spotlight taking over the second city of the island governed for 20 years by the DPP, Han has been considered one of the main factors that led the KMT to win the local elections of 2018 fall. In July 2019 he won with a wide margin the KMT primary elections, however since the beginning of the same year taiwanese pollsters recorded a constant decrease of Han’s popularity that suggest a disastrous defeat for him in the upcoming elections.
(James) Soong Chu-yu, the third candidate, is a renowned politician of the island. Former Secretary of Chiang Ching-kuo during his premiership, at his fourth presidential race, Soong represents the most pro-chinese and anti-independence candidate among the three. Polls agree in considering Soong out of the presidential race, thus his bid may be considered as both a strategy to support his party candidates in the legislative elections and an attempt to obtain the vote of those voters possibly lost by the KMT, influencing Han’s results.
Looking at the polls data and trying to predict the elections results, Tsai should obtain 50% of the votes (in an interval between 55.7% and 45%), Han 18.6% (with a maximum of 23.4% and 14%), and Soong should obtain a percentage of votes around 7.6%. Although considering the possibility of last minute sudden changes, what seems impressive looking at the data are, first, the margin between Tsai and Han and, secondly, the trend and the precision of the estimates. About the first point, in the most competitive scenario, the KMT candidate would be at more than 20 percent points from the DPP candidate, while in the worst competitive scenario, the distance would be of 40%. A distance between the two candidates comparable only with the 1996 presidential elections results, when the KMT candidate, Lee Teng-hui, obtained 54% of the votes and the DPP candidate obtained 21.1% of the votes. However, this time the situation would be reversed. About the second point, that is the polls trend and the precision of the estimates, without dwelling into the details of the statistical analysis, the curves synthesise in an efficient way the data points (the polls results). However, isolating each graph on the interactive chart, it is possible to notice how Han’s regression curve follows an almost linear trend starting from March 2018 and how the areas around it (the margin of error) are less wide than those of Tsai. The polls data available do not offer other variables to obtain better estimates and test other hypotheses, nevertheless it is possible to interpret these trends.
Starting from the current president, we must consider that Tsai during the last four years governed a country increasingly squeezed on the international stage by the RPC. In September the number of states that formally recognize Taiwan felt to 15, and during the last four years the Country has been kicked out from some international organizations (for instance, the UN World Health Assembly) in which Taiwan participated thanks to an agreement between the former Taiwanese administration and Beijing. Moreover, Tsai’s administration went through difficult periods also for some reforms, such as the pension system one, that as in many other countries, especially those with low fertility rates and an aged population like Taiwan, equals to play with fire. Moreover, the legalization of gay marriage, that represents a unique case in the East Asia region, brought to an unusual level of polarization of the public opinion, especially because this reform has been enacted by the DPP parliamentary majority after a referendum defeat. Thus, how it has been possible for Tsai to gain such consensus during the last year?
Starting from the latter point, we can imagine that the legalization of gay marriage that has led to a wide support by the international community and media, although not widely supported in the Taiwanese society, has re-mobilized part of the younger voters and, of course, the LGBT minority. However, given that we are talking about minoritarian groups, it is difficult to claim that this has been the driving force of her comeback. Therefore, the answer may lie in other concomitant factors, that gave Tsai a less stodgy profile, at least considering DPP voters.
First, despite the Chinese efforts to isolate the island, the international projection of the island remained almost untouched and Tsai has been able to maintain a constant support, although informal, by the US current administration. Moreover, during the previous four years, Taiwanese economy continued to grow, and foreign investments steadily increased during the last year. Factors among others that allowed Tsai to foster various economic reforms, such as the tax cut for lower incomes – on average, a bit more supportive of the DPP, according to some empirical analyses. However, although these factors may have played some role, many DPP voters may have decided to support back Tsai especially considering her main competitor. Especially if we consider the possibility that he may have confused KMT voters as well.
The “Han factor”
Han Kuo-yu upset the classical rhetoric of the Kuomintang, as well as the classical profil of KMT presidential candidates – most of the time, members of Taiwanese high-society and highly educated folks. Presenting himself as the common people’s candidate and focusing on a populist propaganda, Han centered his political campaign on attacks against the former or current Taiwanese political elite – considered as not able to understand people’s needs – and promising more security and wealth to Taiwanese voters. This strategy seemed to be winning during the 2018. However, the fact that Han has constantly lost voters support as soon as his presidential bid has become more probable is a sign that maybe many commentators and political pundits have been too confident in consider Han a winning candidate and a threat for the current president. Some experts, for instance, claimed a central role of Han in determining the KMT victory in 2018 local elections. However, it is more reasonable to say that, probably, if any national logic influenced 2018 local ballots, that result may be considered more as a vote against Tsai rather than a vote in favor of a specific KMT candidate (especially if we consider that Han’s nomination was probable, but still a hypothesis at that time). In addition, we have to consider that making inferences about national political dynamics based on local election results are almost always doomed to failure, in Taiwan as elsewhere. Furthermore, we may also consider that the rhetoric of the common man against the political elites probably lost its potential when Han has been forced to propose some sort of concrete policy rather than banal metaphors. In sum, it is possible that these elections have been heavily influenced by the “Han factor”. A factor able to, on the one hand, re-mobilize DPP voters and, on the other hand, demobilize an important share of KMT supporters.
The impact of Hong Kong
Last variable that may have played a major role in determining polls results, are the Hong Kong protests. The link between these events and the main political divide of the island is, at least conceptually, self-explanatory. And it is also considering, for instance, the fact that Han has been forced to publicly refuse the Chinese communist leaders proposal to foster the unification between Taiwan and RPC applying the “one country, two systems” framework that regulates, at least formally, the relationship between China and Hong Kong, as well as the one between China and Macau.
However, how the Kong Kong protests actually influenced Taiwan presidential race is open to debate and it remains quite difficult to analyze with the current data. According to the polls, the hypothesis of a direct and game changing effect of Hong Kong on the Taiwanese voters vote preferences appears plausible. The trend of the estimates, based on poll data, are quite stable across the entire period considered, and start months before the major events of Hong Kong. However, if we look at the vertical lines in the interactive graph, lines that have been graphed considering some of the major events of the Hongkongers protests, the data-points after the last vertical line on the right part of the chart (the extradiction-law date) are clearly more spread, “pulling” the regression lines toward the top or the bottom of the graph. In other terms: the growth of Tsai and the fall of Han are trends that start before the major events in Hong Kong, however it is plausible to consider that these trends have been reinforced by the “Hong Kong factor”.
The battle for the legislative majority
In conclusion, the race for Taiwan presidency seems to be already decided. Very likely, Tsai will be re-elected and very likely this will happen with a wide margin between her and her opponents, Han included. However, caution has to be always considered since we are dealing with just raw percentage of respondents over time, without other variables to refine the estimates presented.
Moreover, next Saturday, Taiwanese people will also elect their parliamentary representatives. In this case the race among the main parties (DPP and KMT) or, if you prefer, between the main coalitions (Pan-Green and Pan-Blue) seems less straightforward than the presidential one. The elections for the Legislative Yuan will be discussed in the next article dedicated to the polls about the upcoming elections, but in short, we may say that the biggest threat for a winning Tsai could be to find herself in the condition to govern with a Pan-Blue parliamentary majority for the next four years. According to the polls, the margin between DPP and KMT seems to be less sharp than the one seen for the presidential candidates. Moreover, the Taiwanese electoral system is a mixed one, whose most important mechanism (that is, the one that defines the major number of seats) is a plurality, based on single-winner constituencies, that is a system in which each seat is attributed according to the votes in each electoral district. An aspect that adds even more uncertainty about next Saturday’s results.