Written by Wen Lii
Image credit: View of the coast of China from Qinbi Village in the Matsu Islands by Wen Lii
As Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) enters its primaries ahead of the November 2022 midterm elections, DPP candidates in the Matsu Islands face a different challenge: the party has never nominated candidates for local posts in Matsu. The county has long been considered a stronghold for the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
As the Director of the DPP’s newly launched Matsu Islands Chapter, I announced last year that the DPP would not remain absent from local politics for the 2022 elections. Positions up for election in Matsu include the county magistrate, seats in the county council, township mayors, township representatives, village chiefs and more.
The DPP could potentially nominate ten or more candidates in Matsu at various levels of government, although nominations are yet to be finalised until May or June. The upcoming races will mark a historic first for the DPP’s participation in these local posts in Matsu. This will signal an unprecedented scale and scope for DPP campaign activities in Matsu, with the opportunity to further solidify grassroots support.
In many ways, DPP campaign activities in Matsu echo President Tsai Ing-wen’s efforts to reach out to more voters beyond the party’s traditional base by engaging in dialogue with political moderates or even “pan-blue” leaning demographics.
KMT-Dominated Local Politics in the Matsu Islands
Located less than 20 kilometres off the coast of China’s Fuzhou City, the Matsu Islands are situated on the political fault line between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan). During the Cold War, Matsu was designated as a “front line” zone for the ROC Armed Forces, along with another island group off the coast of Xiamen City administered by the ROC – Kinmen County.
To be sure, the “green” camp has shown slow but steady growth in both Kinmen and Matsu over the past few decades. President Tsai Ing-wen’s share of the local vote in the 2020 presidential elections reached nearly 20%, while her KMT counterpart received around 77%. While still far from a majority, Tsai secured more support than previous DPP candidates: in 1996, the DPP presidential ticket received less than 2% of the vote for Kinmen and Matsu.
At the local level, the KMT currently holds eight out of nine seats in the county council, with the remaining seat an independent that also leans towards the KMT’s pan-blue camp. Currently, seats in the four township councils and local village chiefs are also dominated by the KMT.
The Desire for Government Transparency Amidst Local Corruption Charges
So far, six candidates have already publicly announced their intention to seek DPP nomination in elections at various levels. In addition, many more DPP candidates may announce their candidacies soon, with a total of 10 or more candidates expected to run on the DPP ticket.
In many ways, these potential candidates reflect the residents’ backgrounds that currently call the Matsu Islands home. Most of the candidates were born and raised here in Matsu, though a few come from other parts of the country before becoming long-time residents. These political novices hail from many industries in Matsu, such as tourism, fishing, construction, the public sector and more.
Over the past few years, corruption charges shook local politics in the Matsu Islands, leading to ongoing trials that involve high-level county officials indicted of receiving kickbacks from businesses. Other investigations that have made headlines include a plethora of cases, such as charges related to illegal dumping of construction waste, environmentally harmful fishing practices, animal cruelty caused by public negligence and more. Furthermore, accusations of nepotism and favouritism have plagued local politics for many years – especially involving public sector employment and government contracts.
Repeated political scandals have led to discontent among residents. Regardless of party affiliation, many Matsu Islanders desire to see more constructive criticism and substantive deliberation on local policies. This has been difficult to accomplish when the County Council and all levels of government have been dominated by a single political party – the KMT – for the three decades since the end of military administration in 1992.
Many DPP candidates reflect a desire for change in local politics – especially among the younger generations. Rather than focusing on cross-strait issues or nationwide debates, many of the candidates have cited their reason to enter the race (and join the DPP) based on a desire to see increased government transparency and political competition on a local level, as well as their hope to see a working multi-party system. The apparent lack of internal democracy or primaries within the KMT also fuels the desire for new options, even among grassroots KMT members.
In a constituency where local politics are often perceived as traditional or even stagnant, the entrance of a new force in politics represents the chance to challenge the existing order, especially when power is perceived to be concentrated in the hands of few.
Meanwhile, the common perception that traditional local politicians rely on the size of their extended family to secure votes has also sowed growing discontent, as a growing number of voters desire to see elections based on the actual merit and policies proposed by politicians.
The emergence of the DPP offers aspiring candidates in Matsu the option to pursue something new: to practice democracy in the spirit of fair and transparent competition while also providing new avenues for the discussion of public affairs, away from existing KMT internal party structures or traditional kinship networks. This reflects historical experiences during Taiwan’s democratisation movement, in which an energetic movement challenges entrenched political machines.
Reaching out to Political Moderates in Matsu and Beyond
The upcoming race signifies a new era of multi-party competition for local politics in Matsu, given the Matsu islands’ unique cultural and historical role. It could also usher in fresh ideas for the DPP and broader sectors of Taiwanese society as well.
As Matsu is culturally, linguistically, and historically distinct from the main island of Taiwan, growth in support for the DPP in Matsu signifies efforts to broaden the party’s base. Political dialogue is a process that goes two ways: Matsu benefits from a diversity of political views which energise stagnant local politics, while the DPP administration also receives more diverse input from residents of the offshore islands in its decision-making.
This is concurrent with the heightened visibility of Matsu in Taiwan’s popular culture, bolstered by a series of cultural and tourism promotion policies. They include the launch of the government-sponsored Matsu Biennial art festival, the preservation and promotion of the Eastern Min language by inclusion in the 2019 National Languages Development Act, as well as official recognition for preserving local folk religion ceremonies and military heritage sites.
Rather than depicting Matsu as a springboard to “retake Mainland China” or a “war zone” to protect Taipei, these cultural activities emphasise the uniqueness of Matsu itself. It also has the benefit of viewing the Eastern Min heritage of Matsu as a valuable cultural asset within the multi-island community of the ROC/Taiwan.
As Japanese scholar Ogasawara Yoshiyuki (小笠原欣幸) has pointed out, Taiwanese politics have long been centred on competing national identities: Taiwan identity and ROC-Chinese identity, each with different historical narratives. However, other political parties have also been trying to reach moderate voters in the centre, or even adopt elements from traditionally distinct narratives.
From this perspective, the DPP’s electoral efforts in Matsu, a region that has historically identified strongly with the ROC, exemplify efforts to reach beyond traditional voting blocs. Meanwhile, the KMT’s continuing shift away from its historic position of anti-communism has left a political vacuum among many moderate voters (in Matsu and other parts of Taiwan), especially those who might broadly self-identify with “Chinese” cultural identity but find authoritarianism unacceptable. The realignment of such moderate voters continues to contribute to a shift in the Taiwanese political spectrum.
Hopefully, these efforts will contribute towards building a multicultural national community that draws upon elements traditionally found on different sides of the political spectrum – an “archipelagic homeland” (群島家園) diverse in cultural identities but united by a common belief in democratic values and institutions.
Wen Lii is director of the Democratic Progressive Party’s newly-launched Lienchiang County Chapter, located on the Matsu Islands, 20 kilometres off the coast of China’s Fujian Province. He is an analyst on foreign policy and regional security issues.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Matsu Today.