Amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and other simmering political issues, party identification in Taiwan appears to be undergoing a transition, potentially signaling a turning point in Taiwanese domestic politics. According to the latest polling data from TVBS—a major media outlet aligned with the Kuomintang (國民黨, KMT)—the public support rate for the opposition KMT edged out support for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (民進黨, DPP) in the month of July. Public opinion polls conducted by other party-affiliated as well as academic institutions released in recent months have also pointed to similar trends in party identification on the island. While the results of multiple surveys vary—with some showing the DPP’s support rating higher than that of the KMT—one thread seems consistent throughout: the level of support for the ruling party appears to be falling. This drop, and the corresponding modest increase in support for the KMT, may be attributed to several factors.
This recent decline in support for the ruling party since 2020 has been especially notable, as it followed a period of growing popularity. Indeed, according to polling data released by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center (政治大學選舉研究中心), support for the DPP saw a sharp 14 percent increase from 2018-20, culminating with a high of 34 percent in 2020. Support rates for political parties and presidents tend to ebb and flow—shaped by the prevailing events of the time—and this decrease since 2020 appears to correlate with growing public dissatisfaction with President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) decision in August of that year to lift restrictions on US pork containing the additive ractopamine, as well as perceived failures in her handling of vaccine acquisitions.
Tsai announced the administrative order to lift restrictions on importing US pork in August 2020, almost immediately after she started her second term as president and while she was riding on an almost record high support rating. At the time, observers were uniform in pointing out the political risks that Tsai was taking with that decision, and the change in public opinion appears to validate this concern. The opposition KMT capitalized on the about-face of the DPP (when it was in the opposition it had opposed the lifting of import restrictions), as well as public fear about the decision, and has been engaged in a full-court press campaign to drum up popular angst against the import of pork from the United States. The opposition even mobilized an effective grassroots campaign and was successful in including the pork issue in a national referendum, which was originally scheduled for the end of August but was recently delayed to December 2021 due to the country’s recent COVID outbreak. If the referendum passes, it would put a non-binding hold on the president’s ability to continue to import American pork that includes the additive.
It is worth noting that, in part, President Tsai sold the decision to lift the restrictions to the public as a necessary step for Washington to begin considering the possibility of negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) with Taiwan. The Trump Administration—which by almost every measure helped to upgrade US-Taiwan relations—held off on initiating trade talks with Taiwan and did not resume Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) dialogues with Taiwan (which had not been held since 2016). The Biden Administration, to its credit, resumed the TIFA talks in June 2021 but gave no public indication about whether an FTA was in the cards. In any case, the resumption of TIFA appears to have had little effect on public opinion, which still trends against the lifting of restrictions.
In addition to the pork controversy, the Tsai government’s efforts to acquire COVID-19 vaccines from abroad have not been spared from domestic political wrangling. The opposition mounted a campaign that blamed the central government for failing to acquire Chinese vaccines as the country was dealing with an outbreak of the virus, after successfully containing it throughout 2020. KMT leaders seized on the growing public fear amidst the ongoing crisis, as Hung Shiu-chu (洪秀柱), former chairwoman of the party, even embarked on a visit to China to receive a jab of the Chinese vaccine that was widely publicized by the Chinese state media. Indeed, the TVBS polling from June on public satisfaction with the government’s response to purchasing and obtaining the vaccines showed that 57 percent of the public were not satisfied, whereas only 35 percent were satisfied.
It is perhaps worth noting that in the TVBS poll, the difference between the two parties’ support ratings (results were collected between July 27 through August 1) was marginal at best at 1.6 percent, with the KMT at 23.4 percent and the DPP at 21.8 percent. Yet the increase in the KMT’s support rating from the same poll from May to August is remarkable at 11.2 percent (from 12.2 percent). By contrast, the DPP’s support rating dropped by 6.9 percent (from 29.7 percent) over the same period of time.
While the various survey results do not all indicate that the KMT’s support rating has surpassed the DPP’s, one trendline appears consistent: declining support for the ruling party. For instance, the Green-leaning Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF) polls from July showed that support for the DPP stood at 28.3 percent and the KMT at 21.9 percent, with a plurality (32 percent) expressing support for no political party. Interestingly, however, another TPOF survey data did show a precipitous drop in party identification for the DPP, declining from 43.1 percent in March to 28.2 percent in June, whereas the KMT held steady from March (19.0 percent) to June (18.9 percent). This was the sharpest three-month decrease in the TPOF’s polling since it began polling on the issue in 2016. There was a spike in party identification for the ruling DPP after the eruption of the Hong Kong crisis in early 2019. In November 2018, support for the party stood at 23.5 percent and by June 2019 it reached 45.4 percent, ultimately reaching its peak in November 2019 at 49.6 percent.
Consistent with the other aforementioned surveys, the latest poll from the National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center that was released in late July showed a similar decrease in DPP support from 34.0 percent in 2020 to 31.4 percent in 2021, whereas KMT support increased only slightly, from 17.0 percent to 18.7 percent.
So, what might these recent trends in party identification mean? From a historical perspective, KMT popularity also dropped steadily from its pinnacle of 39.5 percent in 2011 during the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) Administration to 20.8 percent in 2016. Similarly, the DPP may have reached a peak at 34.0 percent in 2020 and has now begun experiencing a steady decline. To be sure, this drop followed a surge from 2018-2020 in party identification in favor of the DPP during a period of a relative economic underperformance, and in the absence of any major political shocks—which had raised the question as to whether that transition had more permanence. However, the cyclical pattern in the support ratings for the party and president may be reappearing.
In light of these recent polling results from the Election Study Center—which has been tracking party identification within Taiwan since 1992—it is worth bearing in mind that just one year ago it showed party identification with the DPP at its highest point since the poll started, a remarkable shift since its lowest point in 1992, when it registered at a mere 3.3 percent. Simultaneously, party identification with the KMT is still currently near its lowest point (in the NCCU survey), only slightly higher than its nadir of 14.8 percent, which was registered in 2001 following the first transfer of political power from the KMT to the DPP in the 2000 presidential election.
Support for President Tsai has been similarly taking a beating, although some observers have taken a more sanguine view. In explaining the drop (while also critiquing the recent polling data from the TPOF), Michael Turton, a longtime political observer, opined:
It is a story of an administration, which despite the usual abuses from China, the ractopork decision, drought, electric power struggles and a year mired in COVID-19 problems, from financial and aid issues to a dangerous outbreak, has managed to maintain ratings in the polls its predecessor administrations can only view with envy.
While it is certainly notable to point out that the KMT’s support is increasing while the DPP’s support is dropping, party identification has tended to ebb and flow depending on the health of the economy and in response to significant political events, such as the Hong Kong crisis. Coming on the heels of the recent surge in party identification in favor of the DPP, public opinion could simply be self-correcting. The question remains: do these current public opinion trends indicate a turning point, or are they transitory? It is still too early to say. A more salient indicator will be the 2022 local elections. Yet, if what’s past is prologue, it is likely the latter.
The main point: While public support for President Tsai and her ruling DPP has declined markedly in 2021, it is unclear whether this trend is here to stay. Given the cyclical nature of party support in the past, it is possible that the drop is merely a transitory shift.