Where Does Kinmen’s Political Future Lie?

Where Does Kinmen’s Political Future Lie?

Kinmen Masthead
Where Does Kinmen’s Political Future Lie?

Despite their relatively small size and population, Taiwan’s Kinmen Islands (金門島) have historically featured a complex, dynamic political environment that outsiders—whether from the Taiwanese mainland or from further afield—have struggled to understand. Since even before 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon discussed Kinmen (or as it was then commonly referred to abroad, “Quemoy”) during a presidential debate, journalists from across the world have flocked to the archipelago to capture its seemingly paradoxical existence. With its war-trodden history and unique geopolitical position, Kinmen has long been a breeding ground of support for small political parties operating outside of the mainstream two-party political system that dominates at the national level. Whether Kinmen’s support for smaller political parties stems from its military history or its distance from the Taiwanese mainland, Kinmen’s internal politics are certainly worth investigating.

Historical Background of Kinmen 

Since the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) established its base on the island of Taiwan in 1949, the Kinmen Islands have been on the frontlines of cross-Strait relations. During the Cold War, the island and its people were subjected to physical and psychological warfare from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and vice versa, with the Taiwanese launching their own campaigns against the PRC from the small islands. As Cold War tensions waxed and waned, Kinmen became intensely militarized, with military personnel eclipsing the number of civilians. As a result, it became an internationally lauded bastion in the confrontation with communism.

As Taiwan experienced its democratic transition in the late 1980s, Kinmen underwent its own—and somewhat delayed—transformation, transitioning from a militarized fortress to a tourist destination famous for its tanks and other military materiel littering the beaches. In the early 2000s, the “Small Three Links” (小三通) connected Kinmen with the neighboring Chinese city of Xiamen through direct people-to-people, trade, and postal links. This program, which Kinmen’s people fiercely advocated for, radically transformed Kinmen into a melting pot of Chinese and Taiwanese citizens, with ideas and technology flowing freely between them. However, in late 2019 / early 2020 the majority of these linkages were severed amid the imposition of COVID-19 prevention measures, and the current prospects of their reinstatement are dim. When relations between Taiwan and the PRC are good, tourism, trade, and people-to-people exchanges between Kinmen and the PRC thrive. However, when relations are tense—as they have been throughout the past five years—the island becomes a highly scrutinized arena for cross-Strait posturing, and Kinmen’s people suffer from whiplash-like effects.

Politics and Political Parties in Kinmen

The Kinmen Islands have traditionally been a KMT electoral stronghold, with its voting patterns in presidential elections consistently being overwhelmingly “blue” (the color of the KMT and allied parties in Taiwan’s political spectrum). Since 1992, when Kinmen held its first direct elections for the Legislative Yuan (LY, 中華民國立法院), 8 out of 10 of the islands’ elected legislators have been from the KMT. This remains true for Kinmen’s current LY representative, Chen Yu-jen (陳玉珍), who comes from a local political dynasty in Kinmen and is currently serving her second term in the LY.

Similarly, Kinmen’s county magistrates have ordinarily come from the KMT—or sometimes from the offshoot New Party (NP, 新黨) (see further below). Despite some inconsistency in terms of the party identification of county magistrates—the current office holder, Chen Fu-hai (陳福海), previously ran as a member of the KMT, but later registered as independent before joining the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 民眾黨)—Kinmen has been historically been, and remains, a KMT stronghold.

This fact is so well-established that the Democratic People’s Party (DPP, 民進黨) has not run an official candidate in Kinmen for the positions of either Legislative Yuan representative or county magistrate in the previous three elections. At the local level, among the 19 seats of Kinmen’s county council, there are currently 12 independents, seven KMT members, and one DPP member. Despite independents dominating the county council, the chairman and deputy chairman are both KMT members.

Among Kinmen residents, the New Party (新黨), a far-right offshoot of the KMT that strongly advocates for Taiwan’s unification with the PRC, gained political success in Kinmen in the 2001 legislative elections, despite failing to secure a seat anywhere else in Taiwan. The party’s electoral success peaked in the 2005/2006 municipal elections, with the bulk of its political victories occurring in Kinmen, before the party faded into political obscurity. [1] Similarly, prior to its emergence into more mainstream popularity at the national level, the TPP secured Kinmen’s county magistrate seat in 2022. 

As evidenced by the New Party’s success in the early 2000s, pro-unification parties have long had a disproportionate presence in Kinmen’s local politics, with many concentrating their efforts on garnering support for unification in Kinmen. [2] For instance, the For Public Good Party (中華民族致公黨), one of the few Taiwanese political factions actively recognized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨), was Kinmen’s second-biggest political party at the local level in 2019. In Kinmen, they have actively courted local groups and political parties to build support for a “Cross-Strait Peace Experimental Zone.” Similarly, the far-right Chinese Unification Promotion Party (CUPP, 中華統一促進黨), according to a source interviewed by Amber Lin, was tasked by the CCP with cultivating positive views of Kinmen as a potential base for a “one party two systems” experimental zone.

These parties, often considered puppets of the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD, 統戰部) and its efforts in Taiwan, exploit Kinmen’s distance from the Taiwanese mainland to propagate pro-unification policies that hinge on support in Kinmen—such as building a Kinmen-Xiamen bridge (金廈大橋) and turning Kinmen into an experimental “peace zone.” Despite their best efforts, however, neither of these parties currently have elected officials serving in Kinmen’s county council, and have seemingly faded into the background of Kinmen’s local politics without gaining much traction among the Kinmen people. Evidence of their lackluster impact can be seen in the policy platforms of current council members (2022-2026), of whom less than half cite support for the Kinmen-Xiamen Bridge project or a “Cross Strait Peace Experimental Zone.”    

2024 Election Results in Kinmen

The 2024 presidential and LY elections presented an opportunity for fresh perspectives on the issues facing the Kinmen Islands, with the KMT, TPP and DPP each sending its chosen presidential candidates to Kinmen to curry favor. Broadly speaking, those that focused on local Kinmen issues found greater success—as opposed to those who presented muted commentary focused on cross-Strait relations, and performed poorly.

Chen Yu-jen, a KMT member who was elected three times to Kinmen’s county council, and who was re-elected in 2024 for her second term serving as Kinmen’s representative in the LY, is known across Taiwan for her firebrand style of politics. As Shun-te Wang points out, Chen’s consistent opposition to the DPP’s handling of cross-Strait relations—which she has branded as harmful to Kinmen—has made her very popular among her constituents. In the 2024 Legislative Yuan elections, Chen reportedly won 65 percent of the vote

In the presidential election, while the KMT’s Hou You-yi (侯友宜) won the 61.40 percent of the vote in Kinmen, he faced fierce competition during the campaign from the TPP’s Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), who successfully courted some of Kinmen’s residents away from their traditional KMT loyalties, winning the support of 28.58 percent of Kinmen’s electorate. Ko successfully cut into KMT support in Kinmen by promoting himself as “Kinmen first” candidate. He worked to convince Kinmen’s residents that the problems of both Taiwan and the PRC should be put to one side, and that the two main political parties do not care about the interests of Kinmen, even as he advocated for controversial cross-Strait policies.

Walking the streets of Kinmen with the TPP’s candidate for the LY, Ko seized on political apathy with the main parties in Kinmen, who have in the past made promises for development projects that seem to disappear after the election. Ko did not shy away from his previous comments outright supporting the building of a Kinmen-Xiamen bridge, even outlining his plan for the bridge and highlighting its economic benefits. He also noted the bridge’s potential as a precursor to the creation of a special medical zone in Kinmen to increase local access to medical care, an issue of significance for the people of Kinmen. Ko boisterously dismissed any potential issues regarding the bridge as a potentially compromise of national security—a consideration that has been cited in the past by the government’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC, 大陸委員會) following the concept’s introduction in 2019 by Xi Jinping (習近平) as part of his “New Four Links” (新四通) model for cross-Strait relations. Ko, known for his non-traditional, populist style of politics, also called on the DPP’s Lai Ching-te (賴清德) and Hou You-yi to give their opinions on the bridge project, placing his opponents in torturously difficult positions and raising the “Kinmen-first” credentials of the TPP.

While Hou, like Ko, has long been in favor of having a referendum on the issue of a Kinmen-Xiamen bridge, his support of the project was not as well received. When he visited Kinmen in 2023, Hou outlined a six point policy plan for the islands that focused on expanding and deepening connections with the PRC by constructing a cross-Strait logistics hub, developing tourism, instituting a cross-Strait medical zone, and building a Kinmen-Xiamen bridge. However, Hou’s position on the bridge did appear to be conditional on the state of cross-Strait relations, a rather vague statement aimed at safeguarding national security.

By contrast, Lai, aware of the DPP’s lack of popularity in Kinmen, preferred to follow the stance of his DPP predecessors in evading the question. However, it is well known that the DPP is wary of the PRC using cross-Strait projects between the Kinmen Islands and Xiamen to exert influence. In particular, the 2019 passage of the “Anti-Infiltration Act” (反滲透法) in the DPP-controlled Legislative Yuan earned particular ire from Chen Yu-jen, who argued that the effects on Kinmen’s economy would be devastating. While Lai’s rhetoric on cross-Strait policies seems to be a continuation of Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文), Lai still lost a significant proportion of the DPP’s limited voting base on Kinmen. (By contrast, Tsai was able to increase the DPP’s vote share between 2016 and 2020.) Overall, it appears that the KMT and DPP’s track record in Kinmen of only showing up when cross-Strait tensions flare seems to have caught up with them in the voting polls—thereby allowing the TPP, unspoiled by actual time in office, to exploit this sentiment on the island.

Ko’s success in Kinmen, while partly due to his populist style of politics, is also reflective of the success of his engagement on local Kinmen issues. In Kinmen, Hou lost almost 15 percent of the KMT’s vote share compared to the 2020 presidential election, while Lai lost more than 10 percent of the DPP’s previous share. While Ko was far from winning the majority of the island, he still garnered the support of just over 28 percent of Kinmen’s voters, partially disrupting an established KMT political stronghold. While the KMT still holds Kinmen’s seat in the LY, the TPP success in securing the county magistrate seat and almost 30 percent of the vote in the presidential election shows that Ko’s strategy was a success.

By positioning himself as a candidate who would put Kinmen’s needs first by advocating for Kinmen’s healthcare and economic needs, Ko was able to distinguish himself from his mainstream counterparts. While Ko pushed for the Kinmen-Xiamen Bridge—among other cross-Strait projects—when campaigning on Kinmen, his popularity on the island does not seem to correlate with actual majority support for these projects at the local level. Nevertheless, while Ko was able to appeal to some of Kinmen’s voters, Hou was still able to secure the majority on the islands with his more cautious stance toward cross-Strait policies.

Where Does Kinmen’s Future Lie?

Kinmen has long been portrayed in international media as being defined by its uneasy existence as a Taiwanese territory situated in the shadow of the PRC. Despite the presence of unabashedly pro-unification parties complicating the political field in Kinmen, the islands’ residents seem to be exercising their votes by denying such parties local council seats. Popular support for increased cross-Strait cooperation through projects such as the Kinmen-Xiamen bridge does seem to be inflated, with less than half of Kinmen’s local councilors including it in their political platforms—thereby making the possibility of its future implementation questionable. Relying on election results alone is insufficient to gain deep insight into the true feelings of Kinmen’s residents, and unbiased polling should be conducted in Kinmen to gauge local views more accurately on proposed cross-Strait projects.

Overall, it seems that party affiliation is becoming less important than personality and message to Kinmen’s voters, with both Lai and Hou securing significantly less of the vote share in Kinmen than their respective predecessors. With twelve independents serving on the local council, a KMT legislator in the LY, and almost 30 percent of Kinmen’s voters voting for the TPP’s Ko in the presidential election, Kinmen’s electorate is representative of a vibrant, multi-faceted democracy navigating a challenging local and national climate.

The main point: In elections from the 1990s to the present, Kinmen has traditionally been a stronghold of the KMT and associated pan-Blue parties. However, in recent years, local Kinmen politics have seen the emergence of more independent elected officials, and in the 2024 elections the Taiwan People’s Party saw a significant increase in support, at the expense of both the KMT and the DPP.

[1] The New Party continues a marginal existence as a fringe party, operating primarily as a propaganda proxy for the PRC government. For examples, see: John Dotson, Chinese Information Operations against Taiwan: The “Abandoned Chess Piece” and “America Skepticism Theory,” Global Taiwan Institute (August 2023), pp. 6, 14-15. https://globaltaiwan.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/OR_ASTAW0807FINAL.pdf.

[2] Author’s interview with Amber Lin. In 2020, Lin conducted interviews with Kinmen residents on local politics, in which she identified the For Public Good Party (中華民族致公黨) and the Chinese Unification Promotion Party’s (CUPP, 中華統一促進黨) consistent efforts to influence Kinmen’s local politics. Lin did also note that some local sources have said that as of 2024, these parties do not seem to still be active.