Written by Scott Simon.

The rules for Taiwan’s legislative elections are highly idiosyncratic. There are not one, but four, electoral lists to select 113 members of the Legislative Yuan. 73 seats are elected in single-member constituencies based on geography. 34 are allotted to at-large and overseas voters. Finally, three seats each are chosen from “mountain” and “plains” indigenous rolls through single non-transferable vote. Indigenous electoral roles are intended to guarantee indigenous representation in the Legislative Yuan. Yet, the system divides the indigenous population into two distinct groups that have nothing to do with their own social and political organization, as if designed for the ancient strategy of divide ut regnes. Since people tend to vote for candidates from their own groups, the system gives greater representation to the numerically larger of Taiwan’s 16 officially recognized indigenous tribes. Indigenous candidates complain that they have to campaign island-wide, like presidential candidates, rather than in smaller geographical districts, which of course raises their expenses.

In 2012, mountain indigenous people voted overwhelmingly for stability. From a roster of six candidates, they re-elected Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Kung Wen-chi (Yosi Takun, b. 1957) of the Seediq Tribe, Non-Partisan Solidarity Union (NPSU) May Chin (Ciwas Ali, b. 1965) of the Atayal Tribe, and KMT Chien Tung-ming (Uliw Qaljupayare, b. 1951) of the Paiwan Tribe. Kung and Chin are now running for their fourth terms, and Chien for his third. The incumbents all have very strong networks of supporters. This time, however, they are challenged by two seasoned politicians, as well as new political parties. There are 10 candidates for three seats.

The most important challenger is Walis Perin (b. 1952) of the Seediq Tribe. A political maverick, Walis served four terms in the Legislative Yuan since 1992, each time with a different political affiliation. In 1992, he won as an independent. In 1995, he took the highest number of votes as a KMT candidate. He won under the “National Democratic Non-Partisan Alliance” in 1998 and as “Taiwan – my Party” in 2001. He seemed to lose steam by 2004, when he was defeated as NPSU candidate, but he subsequently served as Chair of the Council of Indigenous Peoples under President Chen Shui-bian. In 2008, he lost as part of James Soong’s People First Party (PFP), but still attracted a respectable 15,533 votes. His detractors accuse him of being opportunistic. His supporters says that he knows how to play the system, and that his loyalties lie with the indigenous people. This time, he hopes to win on the coat-tails of Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen. Although indigenous communities are usually considered solid KMT territories, Tsai got 17.1% of the indigenous vote in 2012 and 36.4% of indigenous people voted for the DPP in last year’s municipal and county elections. Walis needs to keep his former supporters, and gain support of at least the nearly 10,000 people who voted for the DPP legislative candidate in 2012. Taiwan’s Wisdom Exchange pollsters predict that Kung and Chien will keep their seats, but that Walis and Chin are nearly tied for support.

The numerous Paiwan (pop. 97,537) have also prepared a surprise. The Paiwan have always managed to elect one KMT legislator; and they seem to have established tribal consensus before the elections. In 1998, 2001, and 2004, they elected Tseng Hwa-te (Tjivuluan, b. 1953), but then passed the baton to Chien Tung-ming in 2008 and 2012. Suddenly, Tseng has thrown his hat in the race again, accusing Chien of not doing enough for indigenous rights in the past eight years. The KMT candidate Chien is probably secure in his position, but the DPP mountain candidate got nearly half his votes in Paiwan-dominated Pingtung in 2012. It will be crucial, yet challenging, for Walis to maintain momentum there against two Paiwan candidates.

There are also new political parties. The First Nations Party of Taiwan was established in 2012 by indigenous social movements as a new, independent political force. Last year, two of their candidates won seats in the local elections. This year, they planned to field two legislative candidates. General-Secretary Lin Kwang-yi (Amis tribe) will run on the Plains Indigenous roll. Bunun candidate Salizan Binkinuan was originally supposed to run on the Mountain roll, but decided at the last minute to run for the Faith and Hope League (FHL), citing “financial” reasons. He was subsequently ejected from the First Nations Party. This may help Walis Perin if progressive supporters of indigenous rights vote for the DPP, but not all indigenous people are attracted by identity politics and the long-proclaimed goal of indigenous political autonomy.

The FHL is a new Christian party, founded by fundamentalists more interested in opposing same-sex marriage than in supporting Liberation Theology and indigenous autonomy. The fact that two of their 10 candidates nation-wide are on the mountain indigenous electoral roll demonstrates that this new party – with relatively deep pockets – is hoping to transform the political scene of the mountain indigenous areas. Salizan’s platform is entirely based on indigenous social movement goals, but the fact that he chose to run with the FHL surely reflects his appraisal of highland political trends. He may be a game-changer in places like Hsin-yi Township of Nantou, where Bunun votes were nearly evenly divided between Kung and Walis in 2012. Many of them may prefer a Bunun candidate. And, since nearly all indigenous people are Christians, they will take this party seriously.

The other candidates are minor, including an Atayal artist-activist from Hsinchu and an Atayal pro-China candidate for the China Production Party. Some smaller campaigns seems to be little more than Facebook pages. With a larger number of serious candidates, however, the mountain indigenous election will be a tight race. The DPP has a chance of winning a mountain seat for the first time, but this is far from guaranteed. If enough Christian voters are fed up with the establishment candidates, moreover, the Faith and Hope League may change the terrain of indigenous politics in unexpected ways. Even if they fail to elect a single candidate, they will promote a social conservative political agenda. No matter what, it will be an interesting campaign.

Mountain Indigenous Candidates for the Legislative Yuan, 2016

Candidate number Name Party Tribe
1 Lin Shi-wei (林世偉) Independent Atayal
2 Yumin Suyang (尤命‧蘇樣) China Production Party Atayal
3 Tseng Hwa-Te (Tjivuluan,曾華德) Independent Paiwan
4 Walis Perin (瓦歷斯‧貝林) DPP Seediq
5 Salizan Binkinuan (伊藍.明基努安) Faith and Hope League Bunun
6 Kung Wen-chi (Yosi Takun, 孔文吉) KMT Seediq
7 Chien Tung-min (Uliw.Qaljupayare, 簡東明) KMT Paiwan
8 Chuan Cheng-wei (Watan Topow,全承威) Taiwan Independence Party Atayal
9 Lin Hsin-yi (林信義) Faith and Hope League Atayal
10 May Chin (Ciwas Ali,高金素梅) Non-Partisan Solidarity Union Atayal

Source : Central Elections Commission and candidate Facebook pages, 2015

Scott Simon is Professor in the École d’études sociologiques et anthropologiques, University of Ottawa.