November 21, 2014, by Editor
Sunny Days and Nuclear Disasters: The China Factor in Taiwan’s Local Elections
Written by Stefan Fleischauer.
Taiwan is gearing up for the largest slate of local elections it has ever seen to date. On 29 November, more than 11100 public servants will be voted into office in the so-called “nine-in-one” elections. One topic that has baffled many observers is whether the “Sunflower Movement”, the unprecedented occupation of the Legislative Yuan that erupted into the island’s political landscape in spring, will cast a shadow over the KMT’s electoral aspirations. Or perhaps political life, after little more than half a year, has already returned to its normal mode of operating?
Over the last few weeks, it seemed that the storm of anti-China sentiments unleashed by the Sunflower Movement had not yet blown over, and that the “China-factor” would continue to haunt the KMT-government for some time to come. Recent reports about various illicit Chinese espionage activities on the island, such as the alleged disclosure of classified military information on Taiwan’s E-2K Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft by retired Taiwanese officers, have continued to make headlines in the Taiwanese press. The high (or low) point was reached on 16 August, when Vice-Chairman of the MAC, Chang Hsien-yao, was forced to resign from office over allegations that he had leaked national secrets to his Chinese counterparts. These scandals have raised serious doubts about the Ma-administration’s willingness and competence to uphold the safety and integrity of Taiwan in its dealings with China.
Of course, these topics of an overarching nature exceeding the scope of local politics should not matter in local elections. Voters should be expected to base their decision on the local policy agendas at hand, rather than punishing the KMT for its questionable handlings of cross-Strait affairs. However, there are many examples where local elections in different countries were swayed by general moods and atmospheric conditions; political low pressure systems, in a manner of speaking, which affected both voter turnout and the success of various political camps.
For some, this element of adverse weather conditions can be taken quite literally, as political scientists have sought to understand the possible impact of the weather on voter-mobilization and the outcome of elections. In polities like Taiwan, which does not offer the option of postal voting, and where unpredictable and extreme climatic phenomena are relatively common, the weather may have a significant impact on voter turnout. For a long time, it was considered common wisdom that cold and rainy days were more favorable to progressive parties (the so-called “Social Democrat’s days”, in Germany), since elderly and infirm voters, who were presumed more likely to hold conservative political views, were discouraged to leave the comfort of their homes. However, the evidence is inconclusive: it has also been suggested that warm sunny days may make potential voters, particularly younger cohorts who are likely to support progressive parties, abstain from voting in favour of spending a pleasant day at the beach. The effect can be quite pronounced: according to a recent study on long-term German voting behavior, a one-celsius rise in temperature typically translates into a 0.2% decrease in voter turnout.
Of even greater significance are the political storms on a national or even global scale that may leave an impact on the outcome of local elections. One impressive example could be observed in the most recent local election in Germany’s south-western state of Baden-Württemberg, which was held in March 2011 – less than two weeks after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima had unsettled concerned citizens around the globe, and had led to a widespread wave of anti-nuclear sentiments. In what has been termed the “Fukushima-effect”, the Green Party, renowned for its long-standing and firm opposition to nuclear power, was able to achieve its greatest electoral success ever, doubling its vote share and wrestling control over the State’s government after more than 50 years of continuous conservative rule.
What should be the lesson from all this for the upcoming elections in Taiwan? First, I believe that the China-factor still looms largely in the minds of many Taiwanese. Even though the Sunflower movement is already six months past, the issue of imbalances and uncertainties in Taiwan-China relations has continued to capture the public’s attention.
Second, just like the weather, a general political mood or sentiment is difficult to forecast, but might potentially still lead to heavy turbulences. Even though cross-Strait relations are not directly related to local politics, we should bear in mind that general weather conditions (both in a literal and figurative sense) oftentimes leave an imprint on the election outcome; in particular if a major storm is in the making.
Finally, I have a gut feeling that we might observe a certain correlation between voter turnout on election day and the impact of the China-factor on the election outcome. In the past, the voter turnout in Taiwan’s local elections had always been comparatively high. Even though Taiwan, like most democracies, has experienced a trend towards decreasing voter participation in recent years, the numbers are still impressive. In the municipal elections of 2010, an average of over 70 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots – a number which compares favorably with local elections in most other countries. In the upcoming elections, an even higher turnout may well be an indicator that many voters, who would not have cast their ballot under normal circumstances, now seize the opportunity to vent their displeasure at the KMT’s handling of cross-Strait affairs and teach the Ma-government a lesson at the ballot box.
Faced with those potentially unfavorable weather conditions, the KMT should attempt to refocus public attention to local issues and, to the best of its abilities downplay the issue of Taiwan-China relations. And, needless to say, hope for sunny weather on November 29.
Dr. Stefan Fleischauer is ERCCT Co-Managing Director and currently works on a book on the theoretical conceptualization and empirical dimensions of cross-strait integration. Image credit: CC by speedbug/Flickr.