The alternative candidates in Taiwan’s presidential election are appealing more to voters at opposite ends of national identity, according to a new study based on online discussions. The Taiwan People’s Party’s Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) and independent candidate Terry Gou (郭台銘), who sit outside of the two traditionally dominant parties, were found to appeal to voters who identify most with a Taiwanese and the Republic of China identity, respectively.
The study looked at data from 911,510 public posts and 101,600,047 user engagements (likes, shares and comments). In doing so it found evidence of potential dealignment from traditional voting patterns. Previously people who have been most closely associated with a “Chinese” (Republic of China) identity have tended to identify most strongly with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), whereas those who see themselves as having a “Taiwanese” identity have tended to identify most strongly with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Here, however, those who identify most with the Republic of China were shown to lean toward Gou, while those who identify most with Taiwan were shown to lean toward Ko.
This presents a potentially counterintuitive situation. The “moderates” among Taiwanese voters — those who are least partisan in their attitudes toward parties — are simultaneously at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to national identification.
Part of the explanation for why this might be the case comes from broader demographic trends. Identification as “Taiwanese” has risen significantly over the last 30 years. The report notes that “Ko’s largest number of supporters arise from young voters, who are also the biggest proponents of Taiwanese national identity.” Meanwhile, “Gou captures older, [Republic of China] voters.” In other words, what’s happening is correlated with the ages of the supporters.
“Younger generations are born to be Taiwanese,” Chen Fang-Yu (陳方隅), assistant professor of political science at Soochow University explains to Domino Theory via email. Very few young people now take on even a dual identity, to the extent that being “Taiwanese” is not even considered an issue. “Therefore, it is not people with Taiwanese identity turning away from [the] DPP. Instead, it is simply that young people are not affiliated with [the] DPP (nor [the] KMT),” Chen says.
This depoliticisation of identity likely reflects different political contexts through which generations have grown up. Chen points out that younger generations have not experienced major social movements against the KMT or the so-called China factor in Taiwan, such as the Sunflower Movement in 2014 or the anti-media-monopoly movements in 2012. This means they haven’t had their identity tied to a movement or single party, and this effectively leaves them free to pick and choose parties and policies.
“One prominent example is that young people overwhelmingly believe that nuclear energy is clean energy, but they do not know that anti-nuclear is a core value of DPP and is always [a] top priority of … liberal social groups,” Chen adds.
A similar take on this trend could come from the new book “Social Forces in the Re-Making of Cross-Strait Relations: Hegemony and Social Movements in Taiwan.” There, author Andre Beckershoff describes a conscious attempt by Taiwanese business elites to “depoliticize” economics by disconnecting the idea of trade and individual relations with China from questions around Taiwanese sovereignty. Ko’s popularity among young people likely to identify as Taiwanese, despite his willingness to countenance closer economic ties with China and other views seen to lean toward China, could point to the success of a quite deliberate project.
Outside of identity separating off from voting patterns, the report also identified various other trends. Online groups in support of traditional candidates, the Democratic Progressive Party’s Lai Ching-te (賴清德) and the Chinese Nationalist Party’s Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜), were found to carry a higher proportion of discourse regarding China and the United States. Online groups supporting all four candidates had a far larger number of posts concerning geopolitics than civil rights issues. Geopolitical issues related to national security were emphasized more by supporters of traditional candidates. Taiwan-based identity issues like the Sunflower Movement were emphasized by Ko and Lai supporters. Macroeconomic policies such as energy, tech and the economy were emphasized most by Gou and Hou supporters.
Image: Terry Gou campaign team