VOTE 2016: Anatomy of a Small Avalanche

Taiwan’s 2016 presidential election is a complete replay of the 2014 municipal election and an indication that the DPP has consolidated its voter base. But can it grow beyond that?
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Wen-Ti Sung

The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) resounding victories in the joint presidential and legislative elections on Jan. 16 are both a signal of strength as well as a mild disappointment, falling just short of expectations of a true electoral avalanche.

At first glance this was unquestionably an emphatic victory. The DPP’s presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) won 56.1 percent of the total votes cast, up from 45.63 percent in her last presidential bid in 2012. The DPP also won outright majority in the legislature with 68 of the total 113 seats available. Combined with its junior ally, the New Power Party, this results in a grand total of 73 seats (64.6%).

However, when examined more closely, the picture doesn’t look quite as clear cut, especially on the presidency. First, as I once wrote, there can be wild disparity between the electoral turnout of supporters of the DPP and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the two principal political parties, with the DPP often the more effective one at voter mobilization. Second, there is usually a high degree of congruence between those who vote for the KMT and those who vote for third party candidates, which in the last two elections happened to be People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜), the former KMT Secretary General and Taiwan Governor, who only left the KMT after being deprived of his heir-apparent status. In other words, had Soong not run, an overwhelming majority of his supporters would have voted for the KMT (or stayed home).

Given these two stipulations, it is easier to identify the relative strength between the DPP-led “pan-green” camp and the KMT-led “pan-blue” camp by looking at the DPP candidate’s votes. For nationwide executive elections (e.g. the presidential and municipal elections), the aggregate votes received, rather than just the percentage, is a more dependable yardstick.

‘Pan-DPP 6.88’

Virtually all observers tend to compare Tsai’s performance in 2016 with numbers from either the 2012 presidential election or the DPP’s numbers in the 2014 “nine in one” municipal elections, which suggest significant growth either way — 0.8 million votes and 1.06 million votes respectively.

Pan-Green total votes Pan-Green share of total votes Overall turnout
2016, Presidency


6,894,744 56.12% 66.27%
2014, Municipal Election (DPP only) 5,830,106 47.55% 67.59%
2012, Presidency


6,093,578 45.63% 74.38%

But that approach misses key data. As I wrote in a piece for Thinking Taiwan in 2014, in calculating the DPP’s true performance in nationwide elections, we should consider not only the votes of those candidates nominated by the DPP. Instead, we should also take into account the votes for independent candidates who were endorsed by or originated from the DPP, thus sharing mostly the same votes. In the 2014 election, these independents together received 1.05 million votes, which, when combined with the DPP’s own 5.83 million votes, yields a grand total of 6.88 million votes.

I thus suggested in 2014 that 6.88 million votes was the true performance of what I called the “pan-DPP” camp that year. Given that the aggregate sizes of the electorates between 2014 and 2016 has been constant (both include the whole of Taiwan), so long as electoral turnout remains relatively similar, 6.88 million votes is a likely ballpark figure we should keep in mind as we go about estimating the DPP’s 2016 election performance, adjusting for variation in turnout (higher is usually better for the KMT), and possible contingencies particular to the election.

Indeed it was. The KMT all but gave up on the election months prior to Jan. 16, and it rarely came close enough (within 20 percent) to the DPP candidate’s numbers in most polls to convince many pan-Blue voters that their vote could have made a difference. As a result, many potential KMT voters were either alienated from their candidate or simply stayed home. As a result, Taiwan registered a record low turnout with 66.27%, an eight-point decrease from the previous record low of 74.38%.

In short, between the 2014 and 2016 elections, both the size of the electorate and overall electoral turnout remained effectively constant, and campaign issues remained essentially the same — the KMT’s core message in the final weeks of the 2016 race was the same as in the 2014 race: vote KMT to safeguard Chinese nationalism and prevent “mobocracy” and “hatred” ; while throughout the campaign the comfortably leading DPP was happy to avoid raising new issues so as to avoid anything that could rock the boat.

As a result, we witnessed a complete replay of the 2014 election last weekend: In 2016, Tsai registered 6.89 million votes, or 56.12% of overall votes, in a nationwide election with a 66.27% turnout. In 2014, the pan-DPP registered 6.88 million votes, or 56.11% of overall votes, in a nationwide election with a 67.59% turnout. To illustrate this stunning continuity:

Pan-Green total votes Pan-Green share of total votes Overall turnout
2016, Presidency


6,894,744 56.12% 66.27%
2014, Municipal Election (per my ‘Pan-DPP 6.88’ conjecture) 6,880,860 56.11%





This leads to some preliminary conclusions:

1) The DPP is consolidating its 2014 gains: After getting the same voters to vote for the DPP twice in a row within a 14-month timespan, the DPP may have consolidated many of those swing voters, who only decided to give the “pan-DPP” camp a chance for the first time in 2014, into reliable DPP supporters going forward.

2) This base of the DPP’s will be big enough, most of the time: Assuming other things are equal, so long as the electoral turnout for future presidential elections stays below 75% (14 million votes), the DPP will have a decent shot at sustaining a majority; unlike in pre-2014, when it had to wait for the KMT/pan-blues to self-sabotage (by fielding more than one candidate) to stand a realistic chance of winning nationally. As the KMT has no meaningful ideological appeal to energize its own voters, especially after suffering a critical blow to its brand of ROC Chinese nationalism (中華民國人) on election eve — courtesy of the hawkish elements in Beijing — the KMT will find it challenging to mobilize its supporters enough to push the overall electoral turnout rate above 75 percent in the coming years.

3) BUT – the DPP still has a hard ceiling that is hard to crack: If it still fails to expand from its 2014 results even at a historically favorable time, when 1) it has control of most municipal governments, 2) amid a KMT president’s historically unpopular second term, 3) the KMT fielding of a half-hearted presidential candidate and a VP candidate plagued by scandals, and 4) utter antipathy between the KMT’s two primary factions headed by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), it is hard to imagine a scenario under which the DPP could further expand its vote ceiling.

It is in the last sense that the 2016 election registers a mild disappointment for the DPP. Although it has consolidated its 2014 gains, its new ceiling of 6.89 million still falls way short of the KMT’s 7.65 million votes registered in the 2008 presidential election under comparable circumstances, also amid a DPP president’s unpopular second term, the KMT’s control of most municipal governments, and at a time when the DPP’s cross-strait platform had become unpopular and in sharp contrast with the then KMT candidate Ma’s “92 consensus” alternative, which registered 74 percent approval at the time.

Going forward, in order to further broaden its electoral and societal appeal, the DPP will need to continue to build an inclusive discourse that can reassure Taiwan’s ethnic minorities (Waishengren, Hakka, Aborigines, and new immigrants) that its brand of Taiwanese national identity is not a cover for the majority Minnan ethno-national identity, but rather an inclusive civic identity that can ensure respect for all demographics.

The KMT’s path forward

The pan-blue camp now faces two possible paths forward. Option is ideological re-engineering. It can try to identify a new set of values to supplement, if not replace, its primary ideological platform that is ROC Chinese nationalism (中華民國人) discourse. The ROC Chinese identity once provided an ambiguous but useful compromise between outright Chinese-ness (中國人) and outright Taiwanese-ness (台灣人) and was acceptable to both Chinese and Taiwanese societies. But it has been put under increasing strain by hawkish elements in Beijing, who argue that there can be no strategic ambiguity on this sacred matter, and anything short of complete Chinese-ness (explicitly defined as PRC Chinese) is tantamount to Taiwanese separatism. Without this option of strategic ambiguity, the KMT can only choose between moving closer to outright Chinese-ness, which is electorally unviable in Taiwan; or moving toward outright Taiwanese-ness, following the spirit of the DPP’s 1999 Resolution on Taiwan’s Future for example, which will delegitimize the very basis of the KMT’s Cold War era authoritarian rule and undermine the equivalent of a KMT founding myth. Alternatively, select young reformers in the KMT have proposed to rebrand the KMT completely: downplay the KMT’s cross-strait relations policy in future, and instead focus on developing left-of-center economic and social policies to distinguish itself from the DPP, partly on the assumption that a DPP with complete executive and legislative power will inevitably drift to the right. But neither reform on the KMT’s national identity discourse nor reengineering of its socio-economic platform will be easy.

Option two is to enlist more help from Beijing. In lieu of trying to reform itself and struggle with the aforementioned dilemma, this may be the default response. The KMT can persuade Beijing that it is in its own interest to rein in and stop hawkish elements such as the Global Times from making any more future commentaries that have the effect of equating ROC Chinese nationalism with Taiwanese-ness, thus undermining the very strategic ambiguity on which the KMT’s whole nationalist discourse and cross-strait platform have depended. This could resuscitate the ROC Chinese nationalism discourse and obviate the need for the KMT to make any meaningful reforms. It could just passively wait for (or hope for) the Tsai administration to experience an often inevitable second term slump in popularity, thus opening the door a KMT return to power in 2024. We will have to wait until a clear winner emerges from the KMT’s post-election power reshuffle to ascertain which of these two paths the KMT will take. But if this week’s reluctant apology by Huang An (黃安) is any guide (Huang is the face of the latest Chinese hawks’ attack on ROC Chinese identity who sparked the Chou Tzuyu controversy) then Beijing has already decided on damage control and the resuscitation of the ROC Chinese discourse, thus making option two the KMT’s path of least resistance.


Wen-Ti Sung is a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University. He tweets at @wentisung.

2 Responses to “VOTE 2016: Anatomy of a Small Avalanche”

January 20, 2016 at 11:36 pm, Bobby said:

It’s a “small avalanche” because it’s the lowest turnout in history of Taiwan elections… when the people have positive conviction in a democracy and invigorated for positive change… democracy will truly become functional and the majority of citizens will participate in the vote.


January 21, 2016 at 12:57 am, Mike Fagan said:

A good article. The third “lesson” involves an interesting claim, that the DPP has a pan-green electoral ceiling inferior to that of the KMT. Yet what reason is there to think that this same ceiling will apply in either 2018, 2020, 2222 or 2024? The electorate will be different then with more young people becoming eligible to vote. Perhaps the DPP will benefit, perhaps not. In any case, unless the electoral ceiling can be explained then it is difficult to know whether and how it might change.

“… on the assumption that a DPP with complete executive and legislative power will inevitably drift to the right.”

That is odd. Why would a majority DPP government “inevitably” drift to the “right”, and how would we recognize such a drift to the right? Whenever the terms “left” and “right” are used loosely in a political context, there is a risk of confusion, or at least of opaqueness and uncertainty as to what is really being said.


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