Why Does Education Affect Local Elections in Taiwan?

Written by Yu-tzung Chang.

Image credit: National Taiwan University Library 20220614 by Yu tptw/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 4.0.

Looking at Taiwan’s elections after democratization, there is a big puzzle: why the DPP can easily win elections at the central level, but once it comes to local elections, the DPP is not a rival to the KMT, with the only exception in 2014. In March of that year, the outbreak of the Sunflower Movement seriously affected the KMT’s election situation. Under the catalyst of the sense of losing the country, the KMT won only six counties and cities, the DPP won 13 counties and cities, and three county mayors without party affiliation. Soon after the 2018 local elections, the blue-green territory of the past was restored, and the DPP won only seven counties and cities; 14 counties and cities were won by the Kuomintang, plus Taipei City’s Ko Wen-Je. In the local elections in 2022, the DPP’s election situation is not looking so optimistic. It may lose Keelung City and Hsinchu City, win narrowly in Taoyuan City, and only win a big victory in four southern cities. The counties and cities currently ruled by the Kuomintang and Taipei City, where the People’s Party is in power, seem to be unable to conquer.

In recent years, the world has been hit by the COVID-19 epidemic. The international community has highly praised Taiwan’s epidemic prevention performance, and no lockdown measures have been taken so that people can live a normal life, except for outbound travel. The economic performance is even more impressive, with South Korea’s per capita GDP this year estimated at $33,590 and Japan’s at $34,360, down 4% and 12.6%, respectively, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF). In comparison, Taiwan’s per capita GDP is estimated to grow by 7.2% this year to $35,510, surpassing Japan and South Korea to become the first in East Asia. However, such a powerful performance will not produce an easy victory in this year’s local elections.

Taiwanese voters have two different kinds of thinking in the central election and the local election. In the central election, the cross-Strait issue is the most important factor influencing voting, and whoever can defend Taiwan’s sovereignty from being threatened by China will be elected. In local elections, cross-Strait issues are not the main axis of the campaign, and the candidate’s conditions are the key factors, including academic qualifications, constituency service, social networks, and party brands. Regarding the influence of constituency services, social networks, and party labels on local elections, Taiwan is no different from other democracies. But the effect of education on central and local politics is distinctive from other democracies.

Education has special significance in Taiwanese society and has a long history. Under the influence of Confucianism, Taiwanese society still has a widespread belief that “All trades and occupations are inferior and only studying is superior.” From childhood, parents care about the results of each exam of their children because personal achievements in the future are related to whether they can enter a prestigious school. Since the Taiwanese value education so much, the level of education is naturally regarded as an important indicator of a candidate’s ability. Most Taiwanese politicians, especially at the central government level, have a master’s degree, and many have a doctorate. Candidates who do not have a high degree will find special channels to beautify their academic qualifications so as not to lose out to others when evaluating academic qualifications. The case of the speaker of the Nantou County Council, who originally only had an elementary school degree and used special channels to obtain a master’s degree in four years, is typical.

Secondly, in the fierce competition over educational qualifications, being able to enter into public universities, especially National Taiwan University, which is the first choice, is highly valued. Every year, only about 5-6% of high school graduates can successfully enter NTU in the entrance exam, and Taiwanese society generally calls them “star students”. In addition to the general channels for further study, NTU has opened up another channel for those who are studying on the job. Compared with normal channels, obtaining a degree from NTU is easier. This special channel led to Lin Chih-Chien’s thesis plagiarism scandal, seriously affecting the DPP’s election prospects in the north. After the plagiarism incident, voters changed not only their evaluation of Lin’s integrity but their evaluation of his ability to govern. According to a survey carried out by Commonwealth Magazine this year (2022), satisfaction with Lin Chih-Chien’s performance has fallen dramatically from third place among county and city heads around the country to nineteenth place, overturning the previous evaluation of Hsinchu citizens that Lin was a good mayor. The verdict handed down by the Office of Research Integrity of NTU is tantamount to declaring the end of Lin Chih-chien’s political life. In comparison, controversies over degrees are less important for politicians who are not graduates of NTU.  

Of course, the impact of education on elections will vary significantly depending on the degree of urbanization. In more urbanized constituencies, voters usually have higher education and pay more attention to candidates’ qualifications. More importantly, voters with higher education, who are the winners in Taiwan’s competition for further education, are less likely to vote for the losers (candidates with lower education). On the other hand, in less urbanized constituencies, voters usually have lower educational qualifications, so they pay less attention to candidates’ academic qualifications, and voters value constituency service, social relations, or party membership. For example, the candidate nominated by the KMT for the governor of Nantou County, and the speaker of the Nantou County Council who is running for re-election both have controversies over education qualifications, but this does not affect the support of the people of Nantou County for these two candidates.

If the DPP loses this local election, it does not mean it will lose the 2024 presidential and legislative elections. Taiwan’s voters know very well that central and local elections are two different elections. No matter how hard the DPP, the KMT, and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) try to influence the outcome of this election, the candidate’s conditions are the most important factor affecting this local election. At the same time, education has had a greater effect in the north which has not spread to other regions.

What is more worrisome is that the majority of candidates in this local election have adopted a negative campaign strategy and have not put forward specific policy proposals, which may lead to more confrontation in society in the future. Political polarization has produced a crisis of democracy in Western countries. Traditional political polarization is being replaced by affective polarization, in which partisans are hostile to supporters of other parties and regard them as the main enemy. Taiwan is no exception to these developments. This will have a potentially negative effect on the development of Taiwan’s democracy.

Yu-tzung Chang is a Professor at the Department of Political Science and Director of the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies at National Taiwan University. His research fields include comparative politics, comparative democratization, survey (experimental) methods, and internet surveys. His research has appeared in journals such as the Journal of Democracy, Democratization, Electoral Studies, International Political Science Review, Telecommunications Policy, Journal of East Asian Studies, Journal of Contemporary China, International Journal of Public Opinion Research, Public Relations Review, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Issues & Studies, Taiwan Journal of Democracy, etc.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Backstage of the upcoming mid-term election.”

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