Many have attributed the results of the November 2018 municipal elections, in which the ruling Democratic Progressive Party suffered a major setback, to the referenda that were held concurrently with the vote. Evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Alison Hsiao delves into recent research on the subject.

 

With the opposition Nationalist Chinese Party (KMT) bagging 15 of 22 local government mayoral positions in the Nov. 24, 2018, nine-in-one elections — an increase of nine-cities/counties from the November 2014 elections which turned “green land to blue sky,” as local media described the outcome — many have concluded that this was a victory for the pro-China groups in Taiwan. For Taiwanese voters, however, what was at stake in the past elections was much more than that. In short, it was a victory for a party that often has been referred to as “pro-China,” but certainly not a win for the (politically) pro-China ideology.

Han Kuo-yu, a marginalized character in the KMT who achieved nationwide popularity and a high online visibility in the lead-up to the elections — and who against all odds won the mayoral election in Kaohsiung — declared that he would abide by the so-called “1992 consensus” only after his election in order to, in his words, push for cross-Strait trade in Kaohsiung. Han campaigned on the slogan “economy 100% and politics 0%” while vowing to “make big money” for the city. There was a surge of searches on Google for the “1992 consensus” in Kaohsiung after Han’s announcement. Most Taiwanese have no clear idea what the “1992 consensus,” an alleged cross-Strait mutual understanding that has become the basis for cross-Strait interactions since 1992, stands for. The Tsai Ing-wen administration’s refusal to recognize the “1992 consensus” has alienated Beijing, which in retaliation has suspended all official contact with Taipei.

In Taipei and other municipalities, meanwhile, the debate was mainly about municipal affairs.

What swayed voters? A highly discussed issue on social media following the elections was whether a series of referenda, which were held concurrently with the elections, may have influenced voter decisions in their choices of parties and candidates, and if so, in what way.

Referendum effects

It is hard to say with certainty that the referenda resulted in the ruling party’s defeat, as it involves assessing a counterfactual: how voters would have voted absent the referenda. But there is no doubt that the ruling party was on the defensive on each of the referendum battlefields, and issue-framing, as some already demonstrated in the Taiwanese context, can be determining in one’s attitude toward public policies. The failure to take a stand in a debate on public policies would then affect how voters view the ruling party.

 

Voters lining up to cast ballots in the local elections and the referenda on November 24, 2018

A quick review of the outcomes of the 10 referenda questions shows that those who were more aligned (in broad terms) with the ideology of the ruling party — Question No. 13 (name change for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics), Question No. 14 (same-sex marriage) and Question No. 15 (gender education) — were all defeated, while those proposed and endorsed by, or more ideologically aligned with, the opposition party won big.

Referendum Questions No. 7, 8 and 9 were proposed by the KMT, while No. 16 was endorsed by it. Austin Wang, an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, found that Questions No. 7, 8, and 9 were unsurprisingly highly correlated with Question No. 16, meaning that in a township, the more people who voted yes on Questions No. 7, 8, and 9, the more did so on Question No. 16 as well.

The fact that the result of the vote on Question No. 13 — proposing a name change from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan” at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — is, according to Wang’s findings, negatively correlated with results for Questions No. 7, 8, 9, and 16, confirms the earlier statement that party identity played a major role.

Wang didn’t find a positive correlation between the results of the KMT-initiated Questions No. 7-9, and anti-same-sex-marriage proposals No. 10-12. But in the same article, he found that how one voted on Questions No. 13, 14, and 15, and Questions 7-9, 10-12, and 16 can basically determine whether they are more liberal or conservative and whether they are more pro-“green” or pro-“blue.” Moreover, those who voted Yes on Questions No. 10-12 (proposed by anti-same-sex-marriage groups) were found to be in the same (or nearly the same) quadrant as those who voted Yes on Questions No. 7-9 and 16 (graph 4 in Wang’s article).

Analysis by Yang Kuang-shun, a PhD student studying comparative politics at Arizona State University, also stirred up some debate online. Yang’s findings echo Wang’s in that he found that the more voters supported name change (Question No. 13) in a district/township, the less they agreed with Question No. 10 (defining marriage in Civil Code as union between a man and a woman).

No significant correlation was found between support for Question No. 10 and the percentage of vote obtained by candidates from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). However, the support rate for Question No. 10 is negatively correlated with the percentage of vote Tsai Ing-wen received in the 2016 presidential election; in other words, areas that were more supportive of Tsai in 2016 were less so of Question No. 10. But, as Yang observed, the DPP also saw a greater increase in vote percentage in areas that were more supportive of marriage being restricted to between a man and a woman.

Yang argued that the contradictory results showed that while the DPP gained support by supporting same-sex marriage (vaguely) during the 2016 presidential election, it also depends on some strongholds that are more conservative. This is a contradiction the party will have to resolve in future.

The KMT’s gain

Whereas there was no clear advantage in the DPP’s (vague) support for same-sex marriage, there definitely was a gain for the KMT by being (unofficially) anti-same-sex marriage. In their study, sociologists Wang Wei-pang, Jhang Ren-wei, and Chen Mei-hua concurred with Yang in that DPP supporters are not on the same page when it comes to same-sex marriage. However, they also found that there was a significant increase in KMT supporters’ anti-same-sex-marriage tendencies between 2012 and 2015, which solidified and mobilized KMT supporters in the November elections.

Pro-same-sex-marriage groups held a pre-referendum rally on November 18. (Photo credit: Hsiang-wei Wang)

The study shows that age is the major divide in attitudes toward same-sex marriage. Irrespective of party affiliations, in 2015, the majority of those born before 1960 were against same-sex marriage, while among those born after 1980, opposition to same-sex-marriage is no more than 18%.

However, the interesting finding (see graph 6) is that KMT supporters, who were actually less anti-same-sex marriage in every age group in 2012 than their DPP counterparts, became less tolerant in the three-year period, with each age group, except those born after 1980 (which saw a 7% increase), seeing a more than 10-percentage point increase in their anti-same-sex-marriage attitudes in 2015.

While there was no increase in DPP supporters’ anti-same-sex-marriage attitudes between 2012 and 2015, it is worth pointing out that DPP supporters born before 1970 were in 2015 even more anti-gay-marriage than their KMT counterparts, according to the poll, a fact that again corroborates the account that the DPP administration has faced a tough dilemma and apparently did not succeed in convincing its supporters between 2015 and 2018.

Not the referenda

Lin Tzung-hung, an associate research fellow at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica, argued that interests, more specifically reactions to the Tsai administration’s pension reform and factional struggles in the agricultural sector, rather than the referenda, determined the outcome of the November elections.

Comparing votes in 2014 and in 2018, Lin has established that there was a statistically significant increase in the number of votes for the KMT in cities and counties with large numbers of veterans, who, like other retired public servants, were affected by recent changes — necessary but not universally popular — to the pension system (while veterans are only part of the group of “military personnel, civil servants and public-school teachers,” Lin said it is a sufficiently representative sample). In other words, disgruntled retired military personnel, and public servants in general, appear to have used to November election to punish the Tsai administration and mobilized in large numbers to do so.

Likewise, the more agriculture (fishery and husbandry included) workers a city or county has, the greater the increase in KMT support in 2018 compared with 2014.

See also: TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill

Local factions have been a perennial topic in the study of Taiwanese politics, and voters from the agriculture sector represent a formidable force. The dispute over the Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Co and its general manager, Wu Yin-ning, was a sign of how factional politics played out. Han Kuo-yu, the newly elected Kaohsiung mayor, was the corporation’s former general manager whose wife was once a Yunlin County councilor and hails from a political family in Yunlin County that is politically aligned with former Yunlin County commissioner Chang Jung-wei. Chang is the leader of the Yunlin faction. His daughter, Chang Chia-chun, was a KMT lawmaker (2008-2012, 2012-2016) and his sister, Chang Li-shan, is an incumbent KMT lawmaker.

For Lin, what Wang and Yang have found supports his argument that the referenda were not the decisive factors in the November elections. It would therefore be dangerous and misleading to point the finger at the wrong cause, as some conservative DPP politicians who oppose same-sex marriage have done.

Feature photo: courtesy of Central Election Commission