Who will win the Taiwan presidential election?

With the 2020 Taiwan elections approaching in January, one-third of voters are still undecided. Who will be the next President? What do the opinion polls say? Taipei correspondent Ng Soon Kiat opines that Tsai Ing-wen’s edge over Han Kuo-yu may not be as stable as it seems.
Taiwan has held its national elections once every four years since 1996, and its voter turnout rate has been decreasing in each election since 2000. (Sam Yeh / AFP)
Taiwan has held its national elections once every four years since 1996, and its voter turnout rate has been decreasing in each election since 2000. (Sam Yeh / AFP)

In approximately 90 days, an estimated 20 million eligible voters in Taiwan will be electing their next President, yet current opinion polls illustrate that more than one-third of voters are still undecided. This raises the question of whether they are interested in making a decision at all.  

According to weekly updates to Apple Daily’s opinion polls, although current President Tsai Ing-wen leads her opponent, the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Han Kuo-yu, by more than 13%, Tsai’s edge over Han may not be as stable as it seems. More than 30% of voters are still undecided, a substantial percentage that has the potential to shake things up, leading some observers to term this “the blackhole in public opinion polls”.   

Unless a game-changing event occurs, the number of votes cast in the 2020 elections will likely continue to fall.

Judging from the intensifying electoral battle, many analysts have initially predicted that 80% of the electorate will vote in the 2020 elections. This makes the constantly increasing percentage of undecided voters an intriguing spectacle, with elections right around the corner. However, from a macro-perspective, this high percentage of undecided voters is not completely unexpected. 

Taiwan has held its national elections once every four years since 1996, and its voter turnout rate has been decreasing in each election since 2000. It hit a historical low of 66% in 2016, when Tsai stood against the KMT’s Chu Li-luan and the People First Party’s Soong Chu-yu. Unless a game-changing event occurs, the number of votes cast in the 2020 elections will likely continue to fall.  

As a result, in their efforts to entice the “undecided” to vote, the KMT and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have been exploiting negative sentiments in a bid to turn things around. 

Being “undecided” can mean one of two things. Either the voter supports no one, or he or she does not know who to support. The fight is for the latter group of undecided voters. Scholars have pointed out that the cause behind Tsai’s and Han’s widening gap of support and the decline in decided support among voters lies in the retraction of votes from the initial supporters of Han, who are unsatisfied with his recent performance. Additionally, following news of Hon Hai founder, Terry Gou’s withdrawal from running for president, supporters of Gou who dislike Han are unwilling to throw their lots in with Tsai, further increasing the pool of undecided voters.    

As observed, the preferences and inclinations of the undecided voters (especially supporters of Gou) are difficult to grasp. They are not the regular voters who “vote for whom they like most”. Neither are they easily swayed by traditional ideological frameworks. As a result, in their efforts to entice the “undecided” to vote, the KMT and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have been exploiting negative sentiments in a bid to turn things around.   

The essence of the “dried mangoes” that the Pan-Blue and Pan-Green Coalitions are selling to the masses may be different, but they both aim to instill fear and provoke the undecided.

The most obvious example is the latest political term “dried mango” (mangguo gan 芒果干). In Mandarin, this phrase sounds similar to wangguo gan (亡国感), which refers to a feeling that the doom of the nation is near. Although Tsai and Han each accuse the other of instilling such sentiments in the public, the meaning of the term is vastly different for the Pan-Blue and Pan-Green Coalitions.  

Han (center) called out the DPP’s “corrupt and exploitative ways” and criticised the DPP government because it “has not eradicated espionage, giving rise to an increasing number of fat cats”, effectively portraying the Pan-Green Coalition as the embodiment of injustice. (Chris Stowers / AFP)
Han (center) called out the DPP’s “corrupt and exploitative ways” and criticised the DPP government because it “has not eradicated espionage, giving rise to an increasing number of fat cats”, effectively portraying the Pan-Green Coalition as the embodiment of injustice. (Chris Stowers / AFP)

In the DPP’s view, if “Pro-China” Han were to be President, he would be at the beck and call of China. They fear he would gradually adopt the “one country, two systems” model, and Taiwan would never gain independence. To the KMT, if “Pro-US, Anti-China” Tsai were to be President, cross-straits relations would continue to walk a tightrope, greatly jeopardising the position of Taiwan and accelerating the doom of the “Republic of China”. The essence of the “dried mangoes” that the Pan-Blue and Pan-Green Coalitions are selling to the masses may be different, but they both aim to instill fear and provoke the undecided.

Apart from manipulating voters’ sense of anxiety for the “country”, the KMT and the DPP are both striving to increase voters’ dislike for the opposing party. For example, at the Double Tenth Day flag-raising ceremony in Kaohsiung, Han called out the DPP’s “corrupt and exploitative ways” and criticised the DPP government because it “has not eradicated espionage, giving rise to an increasing number of fat cats”, effectively portraying the Pan-Green Coalition as the embodiment of injustice. These efforts aimed to arouse the undecided voters’ morality and sense of justice.   

In hopes of reassuring voters, she said, “You need not force yourself to vote for Han if you’re unwilling to vote for me. You can choose not to vote.”

Not to be outdone, Tsai seizes every opportunity she has at each “hot Taiwanese girl” (辣台妹 la taimei, a name netizens bestowed on Tsai when she proclaimed Taiwan as independent from China in response to China President Xi Jinping’s speech) campaign session to reiterate her government’s achievements. Her emphasis is that if the KMT is elected, all the policies that have been implemented over the past three years, such as the legalisation of same-sex marriage, building a nuclear-free Taiwan, and the pension reform (a controversial bill that cuts Taiwan military veteran’s pensions), will amount to nothing. She effectively portrayed the Pan-Blue Coalition as the symbol of conservatism in an effort to arouse the undecided voter’s desire for progress.  

She effectively portrayed the Pan-Blue Coalition as the symbol of conservatism in an effort to arouse the undecided voter’s desire for progress. (Sam Yeh / AFP)
She effectively portrayed the Pan-Blue Coalition as the symbol of conservatism in an effort to arouse the undecided voter’s desire for progress. (Sam Yeh / AFP)

At the same time, Tsai is aware of the Pan-Blue those yet-undecided supporters of Gou who dislike Han, along with the “economist-Blues” and “intellectual-Blues” (Pan-Blue Coalition supporters who are better educated and more affluent, compared to fans of Han Kuo-yu who are typically lowly educated workers. They are seen to be more rational, demanding substantive policy ideas while worrying about Han’s non-actionable campaign slogans). Thus, Tsai’s mention of the “Republic of Taiwan” as the overwhelming consensus for the Taiwan people in her Double Tenth Day speech was a sign of her efforts to draw support from the Pan-Blue Coalition. In hopes of reassuring voters, she said, “You need not force yourself to vote for Han if you’re unwilling to vote for me. You can choose not to vote.”

In light of a weak economy and rising threats to public security, the burden on Tsai to prove her executive power is as heavy as Han’s need to turn around his personal image and that of his municipal administration.

As disfavour towards Han continues to rise, there is room for the Tsai camp to manipulate voters. Last month, the online media site Pinview released a poll titled “Who is the Most Hated Presidential Candidate in the 2020 Elections?” Results showed that up to 43% voted for Han, while only 23.5% voted for Tsai, a whopping 20% less than Han. In other words, if Han is unable to turn his image around and the Pan-Green Coalition succeeds in persuading Gou’s supporters to forgo their votes, the tragic history of 2016, which saw massive waves of teary-eyed Pan-Blue Coalition give up their votes, may be repeated. 

In light of a weak economy and rising threats to public security, the burden on Tsai to prove her executive power is as heavy as Han’s need to turn around his personal image and that of his municipal administration. Various opinion polls have shown that the rise in support for the DPP is not proportionate to personal support for Tsai. Should Han regain support from undecided voters, he could possibly win the election.