Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan’s Election: Voices from Orchid Island

Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan’s Election: Voices from Orchid Island
Election Day. Photo by Scott Simon.

On January 13, the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) held presidential and legislative elections, keeping the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the presidency with 40.05% of the vote going to incumbent vice-president William Lai. Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) candidate Hou Yu-ih obtained 33.49% of the vote. Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je got 26.46%. The participation rate was 72%. The KMT is the party that lost the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and relocated to Taiwan, which was governed by Japan until 1945. The DPP was founded in 1986 by activists to promote democracy and assert Taiwan’s independent place in the world. The TPP, which since 2019 promises an alternative to the established parties, is popular among young people.

Amidst constant People’s Republic of China (PRC) threats to annex Taiwan, international attention usually focuses on geopolitics. Locally-based ethnography enrichens understanding by revealing the diverse constellations of life-worlds that constitute the nodes of geopolitics. Interested in Indigenous perspectives, I observed this election on Orchid Island, near the Bashi Channel. What do “national” elections mean to Indigenous people?

Orchid Island has 5082 inhabitants , 84% of whom are Tao (officially, Yami) Indigenous. With a maritime culture and language related to the Philippines Batanes islanders; they cultivate a distinct identity. They call their island Pongso no Tao (“island of humans”). Unlike swaths of Taiwan, they were never administered by Imperial China. Under Japanese administration (1895-1945), their island was designated as an ethnographic research area. After 1945, the ROC was the first state to incorporate them as citizens. Orchid Island is designated as Indigenous reserve land and the township magistrate must be Indigenous. In national elections, the Tao vote on an electoral roll for three “Mountain Indigenous” legislators, rather than, as do the non-Indigenous, for a district representative. There is also a roll for three “Plains Indigenous” legislators.

Campaign Trail (Photo by Scott Simon)

During the campaign, volunteers for Indigenous candidates covered the island with posters and banners. The KMT, which maintains strong support in Indigenous constituencies, fielded two candidates, against one DPP, one TPP, and six others. On a party list of 34 at-large legislators elected by proportional representation, the miniscule Green Party proposed a Tao candidate, a seasoned anti-nuclear activist. During the campaign, people told me that Tao people are far less interested in national than in township-level elections. They expressed resentment because no legislator visited them after the devastation of Typhoon Koinu in October.

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On election day, the island’s citizens were called to the urns. In the administrative centre of Imorod, people voted in the Community Development Association. Under police supervision, they queued up with their election papers, ID cards, and carved chops (used in East Asia to imprint seals on documents as proof of the signer’s identity) before entering the voting station. The election process is a reminder of their political status because the voters are phenotypically different from most police officers and election supervisors, some of whom came only for the day. In addition, the tiny chops stamp them with Chinese names, even if they use Tao names in everyday life.  

Election Day (Photo by Scott Simon)

Before and after voting, people rested in the shade of a pavilion. Because people must vote at their place of household registration, people greeted relatives they have not seen for months. I removed my shoes, hoisted myself onto the platform, and sat among the men. One older man, after inquiring about my presence, pontificated on the day. Pointing out the uniformed officers, he proclaimed, “We are the only people who are from this island. They are all outsiders.” “Why do they expect us to celebrate democracy,” he asked rhetorically, “when the whole system was imposed upon us by outsiders?” He portrayed the process of making the candidates fight each other, and then asking voters to choose only one, as foreign to their egalitarian and consensual political ethos. Moreover, elections are a means for the majority ethnic group to imposes its will on minorities. This was a potent anti-colonial critique, if not new to me. Other older men had previously told me that they feel more affinity with the Batanes than with Taiwan; and resent being separated from kin by the imposition of an international border.

Anti-colonial views are rather unrepresentative of the Tao. After all, Tao people were also election campaigners and supporters. The uniformed employees were still far outnumbered by Tao personnel. Tao also seek political office. Voter turn-out, at 35.83%, was much lower than the national average, but for those who live off island, the cost of travelling to vote is prohibitive. Still, I met one soldier who took two flights and one train ride to return from the Pescadores in the Taiwan Strait. 50% of the island’s voters chose Hou, with 26% for Ko and 24% for Lai. They chose the KMT for their at-large party, gaining an additional Indigenous legislator by doing so. In support of their own, 8.24% of people on Orchid Island voted for the Green Party, far greater than the 0.85% nationally. So, elections may be a reminder of their colonial situation, but the Tao also embrace their status as citizens.

Vote Count (Photo by Scott Simon)

Attention to Indigenous peoples reveals under-explored dimensions of the geopolitical situation. China’s revanchist claims to Taiwan are motivated by historical grievances. For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and even some KMT leaders, the Chinese Civil War has still not ended. The CCP teaches that the “liberation” of Taiwan was stunted only by American interference. The problem for Taiwanese people, most acutely felt by the Indigenous, is that China seeks to settle its historical score by taking land that has always been inhabited by others. The words of some elders suggest that, if the Tao had been consulted about their fate in 1945, they might have chosen to join the Philippines rather than the ROC. But most people now embrace the emergent multicultural Taiwan. They can freely express their opinions, even radical anti-colonial ones, without fear of government retribution. Concern for their rights, which Taiwan’s liberal democracy protects better than any existing alternative, is among the reasons to oppose Chinese expansionism.

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