Written by Mark Wenyi Lai.
Taiwanese local election of 2018 is seen as the midterm election of Tsai Ing-wen’s first Presidency. The incumbent Democratic Progressive Party, the opposition KMT party, along with a handful of new parties are passionately engaging in carnival-like campaign for open seats, for referendum of social issues, and for the spirit of Taiwan democracy.
Who will win the election? How will DPP and KMT reshape their political strategy after the election? And, what does the result of the election tell us about Taiwan’s democracy? It is very dangerous, if not suicidal, for a political scientist to predict the result of election. This essay will thus provide some discussion in order to answer these three questions.
In the past two years, indicators of Taiwan’s economy remained constant and enjoyed slight growth. Unemployment rate, GDP growth, inflation and exchange rate, stock market index all stayed in the similar corner in the past decade. DPP did not create a new miracle but did offer an impressive economic achievement, at least no worse than the KMT when they were in charge. Cross-strait relations were not splendid but the economic damage brought by China did not take place. Beijing is not happy about Tsai’s refusal to the One China policy, but Taiwan has friends elsewhere. Tsai’s Reforms on KMT’s money, Taiwan’s economic overdependence on China, pension system, gay marriage, energy policy, labor law and others did ignite protest and anger from different groups. However, Tsai’s landslide victory in 2016 (56% vs 31%) showed the societal need for those reforms. She is not a magician to make all the reforms successful in such a short time, but she tried and she is still trying. There was no serious scandal, most of the candidates are doing fine, and there was no significant natural disaster or terrible strategic mistake made during campaigns. In sum, there is no legitimate reason that DPP has to lose this time.
So let’s assume that DPP will not lose on Saturday, Tsai will use the political clout garnered by newly elected DPP mayors and councilors, continue her reform, and head to the re-election in 2020. Then, how about the opposition party KMT? KMT lost both presidency and the majority of the Legislator Yuan in 2016. Until now, elites in the KMT still believed that their total defeat was only due to DPP’s dirty political tricks. It is understandable that the KMT felt frustrated and puzzled with voters’ change of heart because, following the same standard in the last paragraph, economic performance, Cross-strait relations, pushing for reforms and others, KMT was doing exactly same good when they were ruling party from 2008 to 2016. In the past two years, KMT fell into the swamp of self-pity. They complained about the DPP and that the Taiwanese people had irrational voting behavior. They blamed the youngsters and elders who were loyal supporters of DDP. They hoped things went wrong for Taiwan’s international relations to prove their China policy was right. None of those acts and speeches helped KMT’s campaign this year.
However, all of a sudden, a great gift was given to them. The KMT mayoral candidate of Kaohsiung, Han Guo-yu’s unexpected popularity brought national attention and led the so-called “Han Wave” on internet forums, media, and talks on streets for months. Observers are curious to witness this unprecedented phenomenon, and no one is certain if Han Guo-yu can bring a victory in the city where KMT has lost the mayoral office for 20 years running. No matter what, it is a good lesson for KMT. They shall continue what they are doing now and patiently wait for another political super star in the future.
Here comes the last question, what does all this tell us about Taiwan’s democracy? First, public sector in Taiwan has provided a steady and reliable service to their citizens. Neither DPP nor KMT can launch radical policy without the consent of the rational bureaucrats. That’s why the overall economic performance and foreign policy are stable no matter which party controls the highest office.
The coordination between the ruling party and the government system is the core of Taiwan’s democracy and the source of stability.
Second, the die-hard power struggle between KMT and DPP seems unconstructive and sometimes foolish. However, they are helping each other to see their own blind spot. The former one over-relied on their China card and intentionally ignored the voices from social minorities. KMT’s elite perspective brought overwhelming dissatisfaction from voters as well as party members. Han Guo-yu is an outsider and his choice of keeping distance from the KMT has proved to be a smart strategy. On the other hand, DPP has also over-used their China card and intentionally fantasized the impossible dream of de jure Taiwan independence. Both KMT and DPP taking turns to run the government is in fact aiding to adjust Cross-strait relations, the distribution of public resources, and regional development.
Third, Taiwanese voters seems impulsive and jumpy, they fell in love with KMT for years and they promised their loyalty to DPP for some other years. There is no solid and consistent reason why the KMT has been kicked out last time or why the DPP lost most seats this time. Furthermore, in recent years, Taiwanese people are crazy for political outsiders who have no governing experience, who made funny comments, who sang drinking songs during the television debate, who are so young and who are so pointless. Yet all these hilarious episodes demonstrate the dynamic nature of Taiwanese politics. A young democracy can keep trying to explore different possibilities of public governance, to balance its international stance under the threat of a giant neighbor, and to provide a vivid report for people who are currently disappointed and suspicious with the democracy in the West.
Again, who will win? DPP will not lose the election and Tsai will deepen the reform agenda in the next two years. KMT shall rethink its fundamental political direction, and offer new policy agenda for their future supporters.
Mark Wenyi Lai is an Associate Professor at the Department of International Affairs, Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, Taiwan. He publishes articles focusing on cross-Strait relations, American foreign policy and international political economy. Image credit: CC by the Office of the President ROC/Flickr.