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Indigenous voters tipped Taiwan's legislative race to the KMT

DPP won the popular vote by hundreds of thousands, but the KMT still won more seats

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Image source: Facebook

Image source: Facebook

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — In January’s legislative elections, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) got the most votes by a fair margin, yet they still lost to the Kuomintang (KMT).

The KMT won 52 seats, but with two independents that are KMT in all but name and caucus with them, they have 54 seats. The DPP won 51 seats and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) won eight, leaving no party with a majority of 57.

Taiwan’s 113-seat Legislative Yuan has three types of seats. The majority of seats at 73 are directly elected constituencies representing geographical districts, with a single representative elected with a simple majority of the vote.

Both the DPP and KMT were tied with 36 district seats. One seat was won by independent Chen Chao-ming (陳超明), who originally was KMT, then switched to the DPP, then back to the KMT, and finally was caught up in the famed SOGO corruption scandal and lost his party membership when he was indicted. That has not stopped Miaoli voters from backing him, and as an independent, he caucuses with the KMT.

Thirty-four of the seats are determined by votes cast for the parties rather than individuals, with seats apportioned proportionally to the parties that gain at least 5% of the party vote. The names of legislative candidates on the party lists who hope to get into the legislature are published in advance of an election and ranked numerically, with ones at the top of the list considered “safe” by the DPP, KMT, and TPP. Candidates at the botto om the party list are not considered viable and are there mostly for show.

Interestingly, the TPP is planning to have all eight of their lawmakers resign after two years, so the next eight on the list will take their place. In effect, this means that more of the TPP’s party list will gain seats over time in comparison to the other two parties, assuming none resign or pass away. In the most recent legislative election, the KMT and DPP were tied at 13 apiece with the remaining eight seats going to the TPP.

Indigenous voters flex their muscles

Where the KMT won their majority was in the six seats set aside for Indigenous voters, three each for “lowland” and “highland” Indigenous communities. This gives Indigenous voters an outsize voting bloc relative to their population, and this time they made it count. The KMT won three of those seats, the DPP two, and the remaining seat went to former entertainer-turned-politician Ciwas Ali(吉娃斯·阿麗, also known as 高金素梅), who caucuses with the KMT.

If, like the district and party list votes, the KMT and DPP had been tied in the Indigenous vote at three apiece and Ciwas Ali had not won the election, then the DPP and KMT would have been tied at 52 seats apiece, though Chen Chao-ming would still have boosted the KMT caucus to 53.

The DPP beat the KMT in the popular vote by hundreds of thousands in both the district and party list races. In the district races, the DPP garnered 6,095,276 votes total, compared to 5,481,454 for the KMT plus Chen Chao-ming, a significant gap of 613,822. In the proportional party list vote, the DPP won 4,982,062 votes to the KMT’s 4,764,576, a DPP win of 217,486.

How did the two parties end up tied in the number of seats in both, and did the KMT caucus come out ahead? In the proportional party list vote, the explanation is simple enough. The DPP’s 36.16% win over the KMT’s 34.58% was not large enough to represent an entire seat proportionally.

The KMT has historically done well with voters in smaller ethnic groups, including 49er families that fled the Chinese Civil War, Chinese, Hakka, and Indigenous voters. Historically, Hakka and Indigenous Taiwanese frequently were at war with the far more numerous Hoklo-speaking Taiwanese, and associate the DPP with them because some distrust remains among these groups.

Big districts, small districts

Polling by ethnic group largely disappeared in the 2010s, but their voting trends can still be seen on voting precinct maps. For example, a look at Chen Chao-ming’s Miaoli District 1 shows areas of deep blue and deep green that correspond to where Hakka speakers are concentrated and where Hoklo speakers are concentrated. Although 49ers are largely concentrated in major urban areas, especially but not exclusively, in the north, the other groups are largely in districts with very low populations.

For example, the Liencheng County district that encompasses the Matsu Islands had only 5,874 voters in the last legislative election. Kinmen and Matsu voters are Chinese, not having gone through the colonial and settler experiences that characterize Taiwanese society. The Matsu dialect is even part of the Eastern Min language group, while Taiwanese Hoklo speakers are in the Southern Min language group.

Similarly, districts with large Indigenous populations are often more sparsely populated, such as in Nantou, Taitung, and Hualien. By comparison, the DPP is more competitive in populated districts.

Some have argued that the system confers some structural benefits to the KMT. That might be so, but the DPP signed off on the current structure during the negotiations in the National Assembly in 2005 that passed the constitutional amendments establishing it. So if there are any benefits to the KMT, the DPP can not blame it on anyone else. The DPP also won outright majorities in the 2016 and 2020 elections.

DPP making inroads in previously unlikely places

The situation can also change. The current system took effect in the 2008 election and the DPP won no Indigenous seats at the time, nor in 2012. However, in 2016 they won one Indigenous seat, and since 2020 have held two, representing one-third of the six seats, and significantly they won one of the lowland Indigenous seats and one of the highland seats.

It is hard to know for sure if the DPP’s efforts at reaching out to Hakka voters have been as effective in the legislature, but judging from district voting patterns it would appear they have not been very successful.

Traditionally, the DPP has not even bothered running candidates in Kinmen and Matsu, viewing them as hopeless. However, starting in 2020 for the legislature, in 2022 for county commissioner, and again for the legislature this year, Lii Wen (李問) has been running representing the DPP.

Indigenous voters tipped Taiwan's legislative race to the KMT
Image source: Facebook

The DPP’s Matsu flag is a visual representation of how different this district is, replacing the prominent image of Taiwan in the center of the flag with an image of the Matsu Islands. In this year’s presidential race, the DPP Lai/Hsiao ticket only garnered 10.52% of the vote.

Interestingly, Lii has shown that with determination, dedication, and creative campaigning, Matsu may one day elect him. For example, in his first legislative run in 2020, he was a distant third with only 11.77% support, but this year he more than doubled that figure to 23.53% and even managed to narrowly wrest second place from a local politician running for the TPP who belongs to a veteran political family. That was also more than double what the Lai/Hsiao ticket managed, so he is making some inroads locally, and it will be very interesting to watch his progress going forward.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. For more columns by the author, click here. Follow him on X (prev. Twitter): @donovan_smith.