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Can KMT Still Count on Indigenous “Iron Votes” in the “Island’s Most Consequential Elections”?

What is going on?

In 2016, President Tsai-Ing-wen (蔡英文) issued an official apology to Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples following four hundred years of state-sponsored oppression. Yet, despite the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) efforts aimed at reconciliation, revitalization and assistance programs, Taiwanese Indigenous peoples are seen as traditional supporters of the Kuomintang, currently the main opposition party, in local and national elections. The results of the 2022 “nine-in-one” local elections appear to confirm this trend. With the presidential elections around the corner, it appears that Indigenous peoples might remain “iron voters” to the KMT. 


What is the broader picture?

Taiwanese Indigenous peoples who currently make up 2.5 % (584 000) of the total population of Taiwan. Linguistically, culturally, and genetically, they are connected to other Austronesian populations of the Indo-Pacific region and Madagascar. Among the sixteen groups which are currently officially recognized by the state, all but two are classified as highland groups (高山族) whereas remaining two are the plain groups (平埔族). Several other communities are recognized locally or awaiting recognition. Along these division lines runs the representation of the Indigenous peoples in the parliament, with three seats (out of 113) allocated to the mountain groups and three to the plain groups. 

The marginalization of Indigenous peoples became a pressing issue in the 1980s, which, within the context of a larger democratic movement, marked the beginning of social movements centered around Indigenous rights. The 2000 power shift between the KMT and the DPP had marked a starting point for utilizing indigenous identity, blood relations and affinity in the discussions about Taiwanese identity as opposite to Chinese. The official shift in the government’s attitude culminated after the 2016 elections, as President Tsai became the first head of state to issue an apology to Indigenous communities and established the Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee under her Presidential Office.

However, these seemingly favorable actions have not translated directly into Indigenous support for the DPP. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, KMT had a much longer time to establish its presence in Indigenous communities. After relocating to Taiwan, the KMT assumed a paternalistic approach towards the Indigenous peoples through the so-called “modernizing process” with the aim of assimilating native inhabitants into the mainstream Han culture and society. Indigenous peoples also entered the local KMT structures by becoming police officers, party members, and professional soldiers to break the poverty cycle. Thus, KMT ties forged with Indigenous through decades of authoritarian rule. These links, enhanced by the local sociocultural arrangements, prevail until today. 

Secondly, many Indigenous people feel that in its framing of the Taiwanese identity, the DPP focuses on Han Chinese people. Much alike Tsai’s 2016 apology, the party’s strategy of delineating Taiwanese ethnicity as distinct from the Chinese through the affiliation with Taiwanese Austronesian people received mixed reception in Indigenous communities. The popularity of the DPP is also undermined by the flaws in the system of reserved legislative seats for Indigenous people, mainly on the account of a large population of Indigenous peoples living in cities (280 000 people). In addition, should more plain Indigenous groups be recognized, the number of guaranteed seats might become a matter of reconsideration. 


Why does it matter?

Following the 2022 “nine-in-one” elections, President Tsai commented that there is still a gap between the expectations of the people and DPP’s local, grassroots work. This statement is definitively valid in relation to DPP’s engagement in Indigenous communities. If the recognition of plains Indigenous peoples takes place, it might open a new path to the evaluation of ethnic identity among hundreds of thousands Taiwanese citizens, which might affect the result of any future elections. To change traditional voting patterns and win over Indigenous votes, however, DPP first needs to fill the gap.