Affective Polarized Elites and Rational Voters in Taiwan

Written by Yu-tzung Chang.

Image credit: 12.23 總統接見「2021第14屆崇越論文大賞特優及優等論文得獎博碩士生及主辦單位」by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Adam Enders, an Assistant Professor from the University of Louisville, published a research paper in the Journal of Politics this year (2021). Comparing the degree of affective polarisation between the political elite and the masses in the U.S., he found that political elites’ affective polarisation was higher than the general public. Meanwhile, affective polarisation is more diverse than ideology. The affective polarisation of the Americans is becoming more and more revealing in the current political environment. Fortunately, a recent referendum in Taiwan proved Taiwanese, with a large group of middle-class voters, are not misled by the affectively polarised elites. Taiwanese voted with their feet and chose to stay away from the increasingly fierce blue-green political battle in Taiwan.

Who Wants to Teach the DPP a Lesson?

The primary purpose of the KMT-led referendums is to teach the DPP a lesson and turn it into a “vote of confidence” for the DPP. The KMT, however, provided only unconvincing reasons while leaving unanswered questions for the referendum. Nuclear reactor #4 was frozen during president Ma Ying-jeou’s administration. Why should it be restarted now? The KMT proposes to resume the Ma administration’s old plan, but only one-tenth of its original format, “the third LNG Receiving Terminal” plan (三接外推), will be enforced. How much can it damage the algae-reef ecology in Taoyuan? Imports of beef containing the leanness-enhancing additive ractopamine were approved during Ma Ying-jeou’s administration. So, why can’t pork with the same additive be imported? Three years ago, the KMT strongly criticised the referendum for tying the general election and creating electoral chaos. However, it now proposes that the referendum should be tied to the general election. Politicians changed their minds according to their positions. Thus, the KMT elites marched on, but only the withered diehards followed. However, the middle-class voters were unwilling to join the battle between the blue and the green.

The KMT is the incarnation of the grievances of the past elections, which may “hate the DDP more than China.” However, emotional polarisation doesn’t only occur between the KMT and DDP. However, how the DPP cancelled the Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je and how Ko Wen-je exchanged words with DDP shows there are “no permanent friends” and “permanent enemies” in Taiwanese politics.

Distorted Polls Inspire the KMT

Given that the polls before the referendum don’t favour the KMT, would Eric Chu, Ma Ying-jeou, and Chao Shao-kang put their heart and soul into this political movement? They are no fools. They genuinely believed that public opinion was on their side. However, the local KMT party “feudalists” senses that public opinion is not what the KMT leaders expected. Hence, the local members chose to wait and see, especially those who intend to participate in the 2022 local elections.

The result of the referendum disappointed the KMT. Instead of blaming the weather on referendum day and Taiwanese-American singer Wang Leehom’s scandal (which distracts the voters), it is better to examine why the poll is inaccurate. Whether it is the DDP, the KMT, or even the Taiwan People’s Party, they increasingly rely on telephone polls as a basis for making significant decisions. How many self-proclaimed polling experts will examine the results of this referendum and review their research methodology? These include the increasing rejection rate of telephone surveys.

Moreover, successful samples tilt towards people having higher degrees. Furthermore, young people prefer to use mobile phones, and the elderly prefer to use local telephones. It also reflects the difference between “hard issues” such as referendums and “soft issues” such as: “For whom will you vote?” Finally, as the polls have increased in the past three decades, the respondents developed experience. They know how to “cope with” (aka, hiding their genuine opinion) surveys from different institutions. These fundamental methodological problems cannot be solved simply by using traditional weighting methods. On the contrary, weighting makes the deviation more problematic, the sample is less representative of the parent body, and the measurement error is getting bigger and bigger.

Growing Uncertainty in Taiwan’s Election

Based on these referendum results, some people have begun to predict the election results in 2022 and 2024. Those who genuinely understand Taiwan’s elections should avoid doing the same. The referendum results show that the Taiwanese are tired of the constant mobilisation of the blue and the green, and the influence of these two parties is waning. The KMT and DDP in total can only mobilise about 41% of voters to come out to vote. Even if the voters from Taiwan People’s Party and the New Power Party are included, it only reaches up to 50% of the votes in Taiwan. That means half of the voters are not quickly mobilised by any political party. They thus vote according to the candidates’ background or the political atmosphere at the election time. The number of “myopic” voters is increasing, especially in the younger generation. In less than ten years, the young voters who had strongly supported the DDP, such as the Sunflower Generation, have disappeared. Neither the voters in their early 20s are diehard supporters for Taiwan People’s Party, let alone the KMT.

The referendum demonstrates that in the future election in Taiwan, the DDP has an overwhelming advantage in southern counties and cities (especially crossing Chiayi County). Unless the KMT can nominate an extremely popular candidate, it won’t be easy to win. Meanwhile, the KMT has an overwhelming advantage in Hsinchu, Miaoli, Nantou, Hualien, Taitung, and Kinmen Ma Zu areas, and it is challenging for the DDP to win the election. In other areas such as Taipei, New Taipei City, Keelung, or Taoyuan, and Taichung and Changhua County, the elections for the two major parties are closely contested. If a third political party intervenes, the uncertainty about the election will be higher.

The KMT’sResponse to the Election Defeat Reflects its Crisis

Facing referendum defeats, KMT chair Eric Zhu blamed the unfair system (the “birdcage referendum,” the referendum cannot be tied to the general election). The DDP was using the state apparatus to promote their agenda. This reflects the ageing KMT. It engages in no self-reflection and is out of touch with Taiwan’s public opinion. The KMT must say goodbye to the old generation such as Ma Ying-jeou, Han Kuo-yu, Hung Hsiu-chu, and Chao Shao-kang. Falling into the trap of gerontocracy, KMT will kill its momentum to reform. With such development, it is not surprising that the Taiwan People’s Party will replace the KMT in the future.

Yu-tzung Chang is a Professor at the Department of Political Science and the Director of the Hu Fu Center for East Asia Democratic Studies, College of Social Sciences, National Taiwan University

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan 2021 Referendum.

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