Written by Wen-Ti Sung.

Taiwan concluded its nine-in-one elections on Saturday with results that can only be described as historic. Of the 22 mayoral seats up for grabs, the ruling party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), was reduced to only six (and came within 2.12% or less of losing three of them); while the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) made significant inroads and won 13.

The real story for this author, however, is not the number of mayoral seats won. It’s the fact that the pan-DPP coalition has effectively gathered more than 6.88 million votes — breaking its historical ceiling by half a million votes.

Disregard vote shares

As I’ve stressed before, when it comes to Taiwan’s electoral statistics, the absolute number of votes is usually a better indicator of a party’s electoral ceiling than its percentage share of the votes, both because of inter-party differentials in electoral turnout as well as overall-turnout-differentials between different types of elections (which can go as low as say 20+% for by-elections and sub-municipal level elections, or as high as 80+% for presidential elections).

According to the Central Election Commission, this year the DPP gathered 5.83 million votes, or 47.55%, of the 12.26 million votes cast. However, this is not the whole story. While most independents tend to align with the KMT, there are a few exceptions this time around that need to be considered.

The DPP had endorsed (not nominated) two independent mayoral candidates in Taipei and Hsinchu County. Additionally, two long-time pan-DPP candidates broke away and ran as independents in Changhua and Hsinchu City. These four candidates had 1.05 million votes combined, the bulk of which would have come from the pan-DPP side. Therefore, when forced to choose, without a precise method to divide these votes, we can safely add these votes to the DPP side of the DPP-KMT dichotomy. That means 5.83 million plus 1.05 million, for a total of 6.88 million.

Note that the DPP did not either nominate or endorse any candidate in Hualien and a few other counties. Had it done so, its track record over the years suggests it would have added at least another 0.4 million votes, pushing the number up to 6.92 million.

The 4 pan-DPP independents
Candidate Electorate Votes Note
Ko Wen-Je柯文哲 Taipei 853,983 DPP-endorsed
Cheng Yung-Chin鄭永金 Hsinchu County 118,698 DPP-endorsed
Tsai Jen-Chien蔡仁堅 Hsinchu City 40,480 DPP splinter
Huang Wen-Ling黃文玲 Changhua 37,593 TSU (DPP’s junior ally) splinter

6.88 million votes in historical perspective

What do 6.88 million votes mean in Taiwan’s electoral history? It means two things. First, it’s the third-highest vote by any camp in any election in recorded history. Only President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) 6.89 million votes in 2012 and his 7.65 million votes in 2008 exceeded that. But those contests registered 74% and 76% turnouts respectively; the DPP’s 6.88 million this time is achieved with only 67% overall turnout.

Second, it follows that 6.88 million votes is the DPP’s new historic height. Prior to this, its apex was the 6.47 million votes won in the 2004 presidential election. But the 2004 election was a sui generis case that may not be very comparable. Back then, the DPP enjoyed the advantage of incumbency. It bundled two referenda with the presidential election to maximize its nationalist rally-around-the-flag votes, and some exit polls show that the DPP’s core support group, the 20-29 year olds, turned out in truly miraculous numbers and made up as much as 29% of the votes cast, which if true would defy all conventional wisdom about youth voting (or the lack thereof). Plus, of course, there is always the intellectually unfalsifiable but cannot-be-ruled-out speculation that the image of then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) getting shot in public on the eve of the election may have helped DPP’s turnout.

If not 2004, then the more comparable case is really Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) 2012 presidential bid. Like most of the municipal elections this year, Tsai’s was essentially a single-member district election featuring two viable candidates and, like this time, was held at a time when the DPP was in the opposition. Using 2012 for comparison also frees us from most of the possible meddling of incumbency, referenda, incredible turnout structure, and shooting. Tsai received 6.09 million votes with a 74% turnout. Those 6.09 million votes therefore represent, in my opinion, the DPP’s true ceiling at any election when in opposition.

It is in comparison with this baseline that the 6.88 million votes cast on Nov. 29 represent an astonishing historical landmark for the DPP — an astonishing increase of 0.79 million votes, or what would have amounted to a 5.9% swing in the last presidential election, which would have won the DPP the majority — and the presidency in 2012.

Other considerations

Are there plausible reasons to believe that this voter-growth number is inflated and does not represent DPP’s true strength as of November 2014? Sure. One can argue that DPP’s ceiling hasn’t really been lifted and it’s just some spurious factors at work. For starters, it may be that those four independent candidates brought in additional local patron-client based constituencies that otherwise would have gone to the KMT (this is most likely true to some extent in the case of Cheng Yung-chin [鄭永金], a runaway ex-KMT mayor of Hsinchu County).

Or one may point to the quirkily charismatic Taipei mayor-elect Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), who ran as an independent with low-key endorsement by the DPP. One may argue Ko’s charisma and image as a political outsider is what brought the pan-DPP camp issues-based swing votes that otherwise would not had voted for it. If that’s true, then there is reason to consider the results of the 2014 election as sui generis and irreplicable — after all, Ko, or indeed any candidate ever elected, can only run as a political outsider once.

Either way, the main argument is that the fact that the pan-DPP camp broke its historical ceiling is either irreplicable, or is a fluke.

Of these two arguments, the second one is easier to rebut. Out of the 22 municipalities, the pan-DPP has broken its historical records in terms of absolute number of votes received in 12 of them. Even if we take away the effect of the independents, the DPP candidates have still broken records in nine municipalities. The advances by DPP candidates in these nine places cannot be explained by the role of independents in local KMT-friendly constituencies. They did it on their own.

The more interesting question is the Ko Wen-je argument. It is very hard to falsify without obtaining a good number of exit polls data about why people decided to vote the way they just did (and perhaps not even then). The best we can say is that there had been a number of strong independent candidates in the past, and none seemed to have changed the fundamental political landscape of the 46:54 DPP-KMT divide. Tsai Ing-wen, the current DPP chairperson and 2012 presidential candidate, for example, was once considered a political outsider too.

Implications

It is true that 2014 was only a local election, and that the 2016 presidential election will be governed by different dynamics and concerns. The fact that the pan-DPP camp won 2014 convincingly is by no means a guarantee that it will win the presidency in 2016.

But the true significance of this election is this: with 6.88 million votes, for the first time ever, we can conclusively say that the DPP has developed enough vote-earning potential to be able to win an election at any level. This was never the case before.

In the past, in Taiwan as a whole, the DPP always had fewer potential voters than the KMT. Victory depended on either KMT’s self-destruction (fielding more than one candidate), or on fostering favorable inter-party turnout differentials, i.e. having DPP votes over-represented at the polls by having a higher percentage of potential DPP supporter turning up to vote than potential KMT supporters. The DPP never had the numbers to win; it had to wait for the KMT to lose. (The only outlier in the past was the 2004 presidential election, when the DPP had 50.11%. But for all the reasons mentioned earlier, that election annot be considered as a definitive proof.)

Whether the additional votes the DPP has gathered this time are from local constituencies or the “Ko Wen-je effect” or something else is less relevant than the fact that now, for the first time, it is possible for a majority (51.5% per 2012’s electorate), or 6.88 million of Taiwanese voters, to fathom the idea of voting for the pan-DPP camp.

From December 2014 onwards, the KMT is no longer the ruling party by default. For the two political camps, Taiwan’s electoral playing field is finally even.

Wen-Ti Sung is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at the Australian National University and a CPI blog Emerging Scholar. Wen-Ti tweets @wentisung. This piece first appeared on Thinking Taiwan. Image Credit: CC by neverbutterly/Flickr.