The Mess Before the Storm: Making Sense of the Blue and Green Camps’ Primaries

Written by J. Michael Cole.

In recent months, no subject has been brought up more often by Taiwan watchers than the party infighting that has been developing within the blue and green camps in the lead-up to Taiwan’s general elections next January. Much of that interest stems from the impact that the candidate selection, and of course the election itself, will have on Taiwan’s future external policy at a time of unprecedented engagement opportunities for the island-nation. Unsurprisingly, the uncertainty that has surrounded the primaries has led many decision makers and analysts in foreign capitals to wonder whether the parties, and on January 11 the voters, will seek continuity or a new policy direction from their government.

Below are some of my observations on what has happened so far, and where we can expect this to take us. While the analysis is my own, it reflects and is inspired by many of the hopes and concerns that I have heard through my interactions with foreign officials and analysts from a number of countries since the beginning of this year.

First, the green camp, where the battle for the nomination involves two aspirants — President Tsai Ing-wen and her former premier, William Lai. Since her election in January 2016, Tsai has positioned herself firmly in the middle ground of Taiwanese politics. She has emphasized the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait and has equated Taiwan with the Republic of China (ROC), with the clear indication that under her watch, no referenda would be held on a declaration of de jure independence or name rectification (a position which has been extremely reassuring to Washington, D.C.). President Tsai has drawn firm lines on the need to protect Taiwan’s democracy and institutions but has generally shied away from statements or policies that could derail the delicate balance in the Taiwan Strait. Much of her Cabinet has reflected a conscious attempt, from very early on, to bring both “light greens” and “light blues” on board; by doing so, Tsai retained a number of officials and diplomats who had previously served in “blue” administrations.

While welcome in foreign capitals, her careful and predictable approach has alienated many in the deep-green camp, who regard her ostensible unwillingness to openly challenge Beijing, or to retaliate for military incursions or the poaching of diplomatic allies, as a sign of weakness. Besides her New Southbound Policy, President Tsai has also responded well to shifting geopolitical currents and seized various opportunities to engage and collaborate with a number of significant democracies, among them the U.S., Japan, Australia, the E.U. and others, on projects with regional ramifications. Arguably, a more confrontational government in Taipei would not have been invited to join a fledging coalition of democracies; the stars were aligned, and pragmatism paid off, even if the quiet way in which, by necessity, much of that engagement has occurred means that the Tsai administration cannot turn around and use this for its electoral benefit with the Taiwanese public.

For his part, Lai has garnered support among a segment of the green camp that has grown impatient with the Tsai administration’s careful approach to Beijing and policymaking in general. More focused on the “ethnic” side of the divide, the deeper green camp has also lamented President Tsai’s use of “blue” officials, seeing in this, as in her refusal to countenance a possible referendum on name rectification, evidence that she is little more than a Kuomintang (KMT) politician wearing different clothing. (A good number of the more vocal critics in that camp are also former officials who expected to obtain, but did not secure, positions in the Tsai administration.) That segment of the green camp has also been frustrated with what they see as slow progress on a variety of policy issues (e.g., transitional justice, the economy, government restructuring), while civil society and many in the younger age group have grown disillusioned with her administration’s foot-dragging on matters such as marriage equality. Ironically, the deeper green camp that supports Lai also tends to be more conservative on LGBTQI and other issues, which points to a generational clash among supporters in the green camp. Unlike Tsai, who among other things was a trade negotiator, Lai lacks international experience and is a mostly unknown commodity with foreign governments, who often prefer to deal with people they know. (Following her defeat in the 2012 elections Tsai invested a lot of time and energy engaging foreign officials and academics and understanding their expectations of a future president.) A self-described “independence worker,” Lai is also regarded overseas as a possible source of instability in the Taiwan Strait, due primarily to what is believed to be a more activist approach to securing Taiwan’s sovereignty. There are also fears that perceptions of Lai as a more “erratic” leader — i.e., more similar to Chen Shui-bian — could give Beijing the ammunition it needs to adopt a more coercive, and potentially destabilizing, policy toward Taiwan. Tellingly, the New Tide faction within the DPP, to which Lai belongs, has overwhelmingly supported a Tsai candidacy for 2020.

For foreign governments that hope for continuity from 2020 and a greater role for Taiwan in the region, another Tsai administration is unquestionably their preferred choice. They like what they have seen so far, and President Tsai has returned the favour, even if, in doing so, this has cost her some support domestically among members of the public who would like to see a more robust approach to countering China. The main questions are whether President Lai would maintain such a course, and whether foreign governments would be reassured enough to keep the kind of engagement that we have seen since 2016 on track.

On the blue side, the road to 2020 has become increasingly confusing, with in-fighting getting more prevalent — and vicious — by the day. Since its electoral disasters in the November 2014 local elections and the 2016 presidential/legislative elections, the KMT had been regarded by some as a spent force, with many in the green camp expecting it would soon be a thing of history (I personally didn’t buy that for a second). Struggling to rebuild and rejuvenate itself, the party had a break in the 11/24 elections last year when, benefiting among other things from discontent among former public servants caused by Tsai’s pension reform and an awkwardly implemented two-day weekend policy, the KMT regained control of a number of municipalities and saw the emergence of a new star in the person of Han Kuo-yu, who rode to victory, against all seeming odds, in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. Soon after his victory, the so-called “Han wave” made headlines worldwide, and his populist image made him a seemingly unstoppable figure whose rise could only propel him to the next level — the presidency in 2020. From November onwards, a number of KMT politicians chose to attach themselves to Han, hoping, in the process, that some of his magic would improve their own electoral prospects.

Soon enough, however, Han began running into difficulties, which a visit to Hong Kong and China, where he met a number of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, didn’t help dispel. It was one thing for Han, an outlier within KMT central, to win a local election and for his popularity to give a new sense of mission to the deflated party. It was another, however, when Han’s worldview and aspirations began to clash with more established members within the party, including its “princelings.” That relationship was further poisoned when Han’s supporters turned on his critics and whomever within the KMT dared to suggest that other party members should be the candidates in the 2020 elections. Little by little, Han the outlier has lost some ground within the party, which has its own set of policy preferences and a long tradition of candidate-selection which the Han camp is now seeking to bypass altogether. Former president Ma Ying-jeou has re-emerged in recent weeks, and there is little doubt that he will be kingmaker in the primaries. And one thing is certain: Ma epitomizes KMT central and party traditions, which inevitably favour people with the “right” family background and connections, all of which Han is lacking. Consequently, it is highly likely that, if normal candidate-selection mechanisms are retained, the party’s next presidential candidate will be Terry Gou, with Eric Chu on the vice-presidential ticket. A long-running dispute between Ma and former Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, who has also thrown in name in for the presidency, will hurt Wang’s ability to get the nomination, even if only as the vice-presidential candidate. Although his generally moderate politics would likely appeal to light green voters, Wang, who belongs to the “Taiwanese” faction within the KMT, is regarded by the old guard as being of the wrong “ethnicity.”

For outside observers and governments which hope for continuity, Han would be a tremendous source of uncertainty, especially given his pro-Beijing slant and position as an outlier within the KMT. Much, if not all, of the bilateral and multilateral engagement that we have seen since 2016 under Tsai would likely grind to a halt under President Han. For all its supposed pro-China inclinations, meanwhile, “mainstream KMT” is arguably no longer a viable partner for unification for the CCP: it has internalized the democratic rules of the game, and much of its ideology remains attached to the ROC. This approach clashes with Beijing’s own worldview and explains why many KMT officials felt compelled to state their opposition when, earlier this year, President Xi Jinping made it clear that “one China” was now solely on Beijing’s terms and included acceptance of the “one country, two systems” formula. Han, on the other hand, along with other possible “independent” candidates (e.g., Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, whose star appears to have dimmed somewhat since Han’s emergence), could be more easily controlled by Beijing and therefore present the likeliest candidates for backing by China in 2020, should they run for election.

As to Mr. Gou, his very substantial business interests in China, along with incipient anti-Americanism, have also raised some apprehensions in Washington circles about the shape of U.S.-Taiwan relations under his watch.

Regardless of who wins the KMT nomination, a KMT victory in 2020 would almost certainly have implications for Taiwan’s engagement with the U.S. and likeminded democracies on issues of common interest; a blue administration, even if it weren’t committed to unification, would nevertheless rekindle a policy that focuses more on interactions with China. The question, then, is one of degree: under Han or Gou, the China engagement would presumably be significant (akin to what we could have expected had Hung Hsiu-chu remained the KMT’s candidate for 2016 and won the election), while under, say, President Wang or Chu, bilateral exchanges with China would, while increasing, nevertheless be more balanced and inspired by the pitfalls which President Ma encountered during his tenure.

Due to conditions created by an idiosyncratic geopolitical environment, never before has Taiwan had such an opportunity to play a role within the region and beyond, and the Tsai administration has made it one of its key policies to jump on board. At the same time, never before have general elections in Taiwan been expected to have so consequential an impact on the future course of Taipei’s foreign policy. The array of candidates who are vying for their party’s nomination at the moment all have very different personalities and policy preferences. It will be up to party members, and to Taiwanese voters, to decide which direction they want their country to take after 2020 — continued engagement in a unique period in history whose duration is itself unknown, or a return to a more inwards-looking, China-centric posture that will inevitably erode some of the alliances that Taipei has been building since 2016.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Taiwan Studies Program, University of Nottingham, UK, senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C., senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada, and associate researcher with the French Center for Research on Contemporary China. Mr. Cole was employee of the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, a think tank created by Tsai Ing-wen, from January 2014 until June 2016. Image credit: CC by Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)

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