Reserved For Whom? The Shifting Dynamics of Indigenous Voting Behaviour in Southern Taiwan

Written by Daniel Davies.

Image credit: 103年8月1日 馬英九總統接見全國原住民族16族代表及原住民族籍立法委員 by 總統府 /Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

In next year’s legislative elections both the KMT and DPP are hoping to secure a majority, but after the shock results of 2018 and the growing number of small parties, every seat seems to be contested. The seats held by indigenous legislators, traditionally seen as iron votes for the KMT and pan-blue parties, have also become an open contest and could play a pivotal role in the outcome of the elections.

The reserved seats system differs from the general seats system in two main ways; the selection process and the geographical distribution of constituencies. The use of the single non-transferable voting (SNTV) system means that the required voter threshold for election is considerably lower than for general candidates. Indigenous candidates can typically secure election with 20,000 votes, in contrast with general candidates who require 50,000 upwards. The low threshold for elections meant that elected political positions came from the larger of Taiwan’s 16 recognised indigenous groups. Historically, all plains aboriginal legislators bar one have been from the Amis tribe, the largest indigenous group within Taiwan. The mountain constituency, although more diverse in its leadership, has generally been divided between the larger ethnic groups, with two seats held by politicians from the Atayal tribe or Seediq tribe (previously recognised as part of Atayal), and a third seat held by a candidate from southern Taiwan’s Paiwan tribe. Party support for the KMT has also had an undoubtedly strong resonance within the indigenous constituencies and the highland constituency in particular, which has never elected a candidate affiliated with the pan-green camp.

The 73 constituencies for the general legislative elections are divided first by county and second by township borders. However, the reserved seats for indingenous peoples are divided by historically created borders of highland and lowland constituencies, roughly based on the lines denoting ‘civilised’ people from ‘barbarian’ people as defined in the Japanese colonial period. The result of this division is that instead of being restricted by geographical proximity, the contests are nationwide. Successful legislators will act on behalf of constituencies of over 200,000 individuals spread across the county, meaning local interests are sidelined. Voters decision making process is thus theoretically split by four potential preferences:

  • The candidate whose policies they agree with most.
  • The candidate from the party they most identify with.
  • The candidate who is geographically situated closest to them.
  • The candidate with whom they share ethnic or family ties.

Although it is very difficult to determine if voters act based on policy or party preference, the third and fourth options, which have considerable overlap, have been shown to be of significant importance. Voting data from the 2016 legislative elections shows that townships in high mountain seats voted in largest numbers for candidates with a shared ethnicity. Historical voting records also show that hometowns and homevillages were the primary source of votes for many candidates, especially for those newly emerging.

The Contested Seat of the South

In the 2020 elections the local dynamics of the indigenous reserved system will be put to the test in the southern counties. The three term highland legislator Jian Dong-ming (Uliw.Qaljupayare) has chosen not to stand after being embroiled in an ongoing vote-buying scandal following the 2016 elections. The traditionally Southern Taiwan/Paiwan seat will be contested by two first-time candidates: KMT candidate Chang Zheng-hui (Lemaljiz Kusaza) and DPP nominee Wu Li-hua (Saidai Tarovecahe). Both candidates are from southern Taiwan, have extensive ties in Paiwan communities and are running on policies of promoting indigenous culture and industry. The big questions are who can mobilise votes beyond their immediate base and what role will national party politics play when traditional family and ethnic guanxi is neutralised, as is the case this year.

The choice of the DPP to nominate a highland candidate, and perhaps more importantly the decision of Wu Li-hua to accept the nomination, shows that the dynamics of indigenous voting is shifting. The geographical bases of the candidates, Taitung for Chang versus South Kaohsiung and Northern Pingtung for Wu, are seen as secure votes for the candidates. Maolin, Wu Li-hua’s home district, voted over 90% in favour of Han Kuo-yu in the 2018 local elections and is expected to generally drop party affiliations in support of their home grown candidate. Elsewhere, party support for the KMT and presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu within the indigenous constituencies of southern Taiwan will play its part. Chang Zheng-hui’s banners that show the candidate in party colours alongside Han Kuo-yu are a definite strength. Wu Li-hua’s call for political party divisions to be overcome in support of greater Indigenous rights, and an advertising campaign void of the DPP green or President Tsai in favour of Mayor Pen Meng-an with a backdrop of earth tones, are calculated choices.

Through discussion with voters, it is clear that the older generation focus more on party (KMT) affiliation. In contrast, younger voters have been less quick to give as much weight to party loyalties. Some interviewed showed clear indifference, feeling that no party represented their interests. Of course, social media presence and candidates’ perceived personalities were also mentioned as factors by younger voters. There was, however, a recurring theme within younger voters in Pingtung about of the role of community activity. Within the new generation of voters, political clout and party affiliation seem to mean very little in comparison to grass-roots work and commitment through interaction and presence.

The design of the reserved seat system means that the legislative elections will play out mostly within specific ethnic and geographical areas. For many, especially those outside of the buluo, the elections are seen as predictable and a reflection of unequal ethnic demographics and KMT domination. But the choice is actually more complicated. Lines and votes are defined by family, ethnicity, parties, age, affiliation and experience. The 2020 legislative elections bring all these elements together under special circumstances. The southern competition of Chang and Wu for the role of the Paiwan/Rukai representative has the potential to symbolise change, not a shift from one party to another, but a turn towards a greater role for local action and community leadership. Such a change is evident through conversation with young voters, but as a local teacher and important cultural figure highlighted, this new way of thinking “will only make a difference if the new generation of voters actually vote”.

Daniel Davies is a Ph.D. candidate at the National Sun-Yat Sen University in Kaohsiung exploring the forms of representation and articulation of aboriginal identity in multicultural Taiwan. Daniel has also been active in community development, arts and educational programmes in collaboration with the Pingtung County Government and the Council of Indigenous Peoples.

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