Reflections on the 2022 Taiwan Local Elections: Demise of Taiwan Identity Politics?

Written by Chia-hung Tsai.

Image credit: 韓國瑜/ Facebook.

One of the cornerstones of Taiwan’s politics is political identity. Taiwanese and Chinese identities are long-lasting generic concepts. They have cultural, ethnic, and political aspects. They can stimulate political attitudes and behaviour when associated with other values. Many political scientists explained how identity shapes the political system in Taiwan. According to the long-term trend of Taiwanese identity made by the Election Study Center, National Chengchi University, Taiwanese identity has gradually increased since 2008. The downward trajectory of the nationalist party, or Kuomintang (KMT), seems to reflect the decline of Chinese identity, and the 2014 Sunflower Movement marked the culmination of the growth of Taiwanese identity. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) returned to power in 2016.

The 2018 local elections seemed to reverse the development of identity politics. Using populist rhetoric, Han Kuo-yu won the Kaohsiung mayor election and rallied supporters helping the KMT to win fifteen county/city mayor elections. Many analysts blamed misinformation and pension reform for the DPP’s setback. Thirteen months later, the DPP incumbent, Tsai Ing-wen, won a landslide victory in the presidential election. It is widely believed that Xi Jinping’s “one country, two systems” proposal right after the 2018 local elections stimulated Taiwanese identity. As a result, Han Kuo-yu was recalled in June 2020.

Fast forward to the 2022 local elections. The DPP kept Kaohsiung this time but lost Keelung County, Hsinchu City and Taoyuan City. It is reported that many DPP supporters either abstain or switch to the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) due to DPP’s disappointing domestic policies. The KMT repeatedly dominated local elections despite both parties’ corruption issues and scandals. It is partly because the legacy of authoritarianism still plays a role in local politics. Back then, clientelism was used by the authoritarian regime for social control and mass mobilization. Nowadays, social networks and organizations nurtured by local governments and politicians still provide cues to voters. Even though the DPP government tries to penetrate local governments through project funding, many experts criticized distributive politics, arguing that the DPP government should pay more attention to social justice and due procedure. 

From the perspective of identity politics, the 2022 local election results are puzzling. Tsai Ing-wen remains popular, partly because the DPP government successfully contains the Covid-19 pandemic in general while maintaining economic growth. China’s military exercises as revenge for the visit of the US speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, seem to drag down Chinese’ image to a lower level. These achievements and events should boost Taiwanese identity and hence favour the DPP candidates. However, the DPP was not credited for the Covid-19 measures, economic growth, and closer relations with the US. Instead, the DPP was criticized for delayed nomination, mismanagement of quarantine policies, and long-standing income inequality. In other words, identity did not play a big part in this election.

In retrospect, I would argue that the 2018 local elections were a turning point in identity politics. First of all, Han Kuo-yu was considered pro-China, but he got elected in Kaohsiung City, which has been one of DPP’s strongholds for decades. Although Han was recalled right after the 2020 presidential election, he remains popular among the people and opinion leaders. His populist rhetoric would not diminish along with him.

Second, the 2020 presidential election may be an unusual peak point of Taiwanese identity due to the threat of China. According to the ESC’s tracking data, the proportion of exclusive Taiwanese identity was 64.3%, the highest number since 1992. The second highest one was 60.6% in 2014. After 2014 and 2020, the proportions of Taiwanese identity have been declining. It may be too early to predict that Taiwanese identity will not regain momentum, but its marginal effect on elections may become less significant. One main reason is that the new generation may have internalized Taiwanese identity. In this case, they would appreciate efforts to promote Taiwanese identity less than the generation that underwent democratization.

Last but not the least, economic interdependence between China, Taiwan, the US and other countries will differ from before the Covid-19 pandemic. Taiwan exports high-end semiconductors and optical components to China, while China supplies key raw materials such as rare earths and low-end mass-produced electronic components. There are signs that Taiwan’s exports are gradually moving to the US. Moreover, Taiwan-based companies are moving their production lines away from China to avoid the US sanction. Taiwanese companies also diversify their investment by shifting to Southeast Asia and other countries. Therefore, it is expected that Taiwan will decrease its economic dependence on China but increases its reliance on the US According to the interdependence theory, Taiwan may have greater bargaining power with China. If Taiwan can even sign trade agreements or enter a trade framework through the US, Taiwanese people may feel more secure. Still, China can use force to intimidate Taiwan. But the issue dimension may transform into how Taiwan can have more security rather than if Taiwan should accept any condition for dialogue with China.

 Taiwanese/Chinese identity certainly remains relevant to Taiwan politics because political parties have long used nationalism in many discourses. The issue of cross-Strait relations remains prominent in the national-level election. Therefore, a few analyses suggest that the DPP is more hopeful than the KMT in the 2024 presidential election. However, the changing domestic and international environments have involved more issues that are not as clear-cut as identity. People are frustrated about economic inequality, shrinking pensions, and money politics. They also worry about an ageing society, education quality, and energy policy. The constitutional referendum on lowering the voting age to 18 fails to meet the turnout threshold, which implies the generation gap and reactionism to citizenship. Those issues may not be as symbolic as identity, but they are fragmented and hard to address in a short time. The next challenge for Taiwan’s democracy is pushing the possible long-term reform while holding unity within the existing institution.

Chia-hung Tsai is a Research Fellow at the Election Study Center of the National Chengchi University and a Visiting Scholar at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies of Harvard University.

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