Fortress of Democracy: Taiwan’s Election Deserves Strong International Support

Fortress of Democracy: Taiwan’s Election Deserves Strong International Support

After a fierce electoral campaign, 19 million voters in Taiwan woke up on January 11, 2020, with important choices to make in their country’s presidential and legislative election.


The voting itself is very local. Polling stations, one for every 1500 to 3000 voters, are easily-accessible public buildings such as schools and community centres. The elections are held on Saturdays from 8 am to 4 pm, outside normal working hours. Each person receives three colour-coded ballots: pink for president, yellow for district legislator, and white for the party ballot. Indigenous people, who have a guaranteed quota of legislators, vote on a separate electoral roll, getting a blue ballot for the mountain roll or a green one for the plains roll. Everyone must vote in their place of household registration, which means that many must travel to vote. Even overseas voters must return to Taiwan. The votes are counted manually at the end of the day in the polling station, in the presence of all parties and any interested citizens. This seemingly archaic system makes fraud almost impossible. It could be a model for other democracies.

Voters line up to vote in Tainan. Photo by the author.

Campaigning Taiwan-Style

Taiwanese election campaigns are raucous. In the weeks preceding the election, the streets are decorated with posters and flags. Campaign trucks and parades “sweep the streets” (saojie, 掃街), and compete to see who can draw the largest crowds. The presidential candidates travel around the country, mobilizing their local teams of supporters and making themselves as accessible as possible to everyone. In just one week in Tainan, and without making any effort to find them, I encountered three major candidates. Incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen (Democratic Progressive Party, DPP) and DPP vice-president candidate William Lai (a former Tainan mayor) passed by in heavily guarded convoys. I met James Soong (People First Party) in a temple and was even able to have a private conversation with this amicable fourth-time presidential candidate.

The votes are counted manually at the end of the day in the polling station, in the presence of all parties and any interested citizens. This seemingly archaic system makes fraud almost impossible. It could be a model for other democracies.

This year’s election was more explicitly about China than ever before, probably because it was preceded by months of heavily mediatized pro-democracy protests and police violence in Hong Kong. In Tainan, DPP legislative candidate Lin Chun-hsien had large campaign banners reading, “Say No to China! Don’t let Hong Kong be Disappointed with Us.” Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) opponent Tsai Shu-huei used the slogans “Love Taiwan, Protect Sovereignty, Boost the Economy.” Yet, everyone knows that the DPP is more realistic about China’s military threat to Taiwan, which China seeks to annex In contrast, the KMT seeks closer economic and political ties across the Taiwan Strait. When I pointed out Tsai’s slogan to a local woman, she rolled her eyes and said, “That’s because this is Tainan. They know we all care about sovereignty.”


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Other issues weighed heavily on voter’s minds. Many of the KMT supporters were furious at Tsai for having implemented pension reform that eliminated savings plans with state-funded 18% interest rates for retired public servants. In the wake of Taiwan’s legalization of same-sex marriage, some KMT candidates (including Tainan’s Hung Hsiu-chu) ran on explicitly homophobic platforms. Most people seemed as worried about the erratic personality and incoherent platform of KMT presidential candidate, Daniel Han, as they were about his close ties with China.

On the final night of the election, massive campaign rallies were held in Kaohsiung and Taipei. Tsai began in Kaohsiung and then rushed to Taipei to speak at the rally at Ketagalan Boulevard in front of the Presidential Office; whereas Han did the reverse. At the Han rallies, supporters dressed up in the red, white and blue of the Republic of China flag. Han, who last summer promised that a Hong Kong-style “one country, two systems” would come to Taiwan “only over my dead body,” had little to say about China. Instead, he accused the DPP (counterfactually) of destroying the economy. Tsai made a sharp contrast between the police repression in Hong Kong and the vibrancy of Taiwan’s democracy. Her last words, before all campaigning ended punctually at 10 pm, were: “Tomorrow, we will let everyone see how the people of Taiwan protect this fortress of democracy for the world.”

Election Results

The Taiwanese people indeed spoke out. With a voter turnout of 74.9%, Tsai prevailed with a land-slide victory of 57.1%, against 38.6% for Han, and 4.3% for Soong. Tsai’s total vote of 8,170,231 broke historical records. The DPP got their desired majority in the Legislature. Yet, the election was not a total defeat for the KMT. The DPP obtained 33.9% of the legislative votes, compared to the KMT at 33.3%. In terms of legislative seats, the DPP lost seven seats, whereas the KMT gained three. Smaller parties gained six and independent candidates two. Perhaps most important was that the DPP, with candidate Saidai Tarovecahe, broke the KMT stranglehold on mountain indigenous votes for the first time in history. Overall, the election results were more of a refusal of the populist candidate, Han, than a rejection of the KMT. Han conceded defeat immediately and politely so that his party can move on.

International Reactions

The world immediately took notice. United States’ Secretary of State Michael Pompeo made an official announcement that “the United States congratulates Dr. Tsai Ing-wen on her re-election in Taiwan’s presidential election.” Japan’s Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu similarly made a strong statement, as did Australia and France. Canada took a lowkey approach, first issuing a statement in Chinese on the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei (CTOT) Facebook newsfeed, followed up by a tweet in English and French. Without naming the President, Global Affairs announced, “Canada congratulates the people of Taiwan on the recent elections.”

In President Tsai’s words, “Taiwan is a fortress of democracy” for the world. The military metaphor aptly reveals that Taiwan is on the front line against Chinese expansionism. The hard work of the Taiwanese people to continually uphold democracy merits international recognition. The US and Japan took the lead to recognize this reality. Other countries must also show strong support if we value our collective democratic freedoms.


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