Written by Gunter Schubert.
Taiwan’s upcoming national elections invoke the spectre of a new minority government: a parliament dominated by a ‘pan-blue’ majority set against a ‘green’ president. Taiwan has seen this before. During his eight years in office, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Chen Shui-bian faced a Legislative Yuan dominated by the Kuomintang (KMT) and People’s First Party (PFP), and so was effectively blocked from pushing through any meaningful policy. Given the polarisation of Taiwanese politics, a legislature and presidency split between the KMT and the DPP means political paralysis. However, according to recent survey data, the upcoming elections may result in exactly such a split. President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP seems to be on track to defeat Han Kuo-yu, the KMT contender; at the same time, the pan blue camp consisting of the KMT and PFP may win a majority in the Legislative Yuan. If this happens, we are facing a dull four years in terms of law-making. We can expect the opposition to delay or reject any draft bill from the presidential office or the Executive Yuan. At the same time, the pan-blues will try to push through their own bills against governing DPP resistance. As a consequence, political polarisation will fester as frustrations grow on both sides.
Given the manifold problems Taiwan is facing, this potential outcome is worrisome. To be fair, if circumstances were reversed with the KMT presidency and DDP-led majority in the Legislative Yuan, the result would be much the same. Taiwan’s zero-sum political culture is a tragedy for its otherwise lively and vibrant democracy. Taiwan’s party system, one divided not by the ‘classical’ right-left spectrum but almost exclusively by policy approach to China and thereby linked to an identity cleavage, cannot produce compromises. Political compromise is barely possible where identity is at stake. When more parties have emerged to compete for votes, they have joined one of the two camps – pan-blue or pan-green – meaning that the same zero-sum mentality has prevailed. Even today, new parties such as the New Power Party are too small to break through the established party-camp logic and put forward an agenda unrelated to Taiwan’s national identity.
Can There Be Change?
Several of my Taiwanese friends were earlier this year facing an intriguing dilemma. They were supporters of the KMT, but unhappy with its presidential candidate. They thus pondered the possibility of a split vote wherein they would support the KMT in the legislative elections but vote for Tsai Ing-wen in the presidential race. Split-voting is not common in Taiwan, though it does happen. According to a post-election panel telephone survey, in the 2016 legislative elections only 8.9% of voters claimed to have split their votes between the pan-blue and pan-green party camps. Most Taiwan scholars discard the possibility that the famous median voter, who decides elections, would seriously consider split-voting as a strategic option. Does my anecdotal evidence suggest a new trend here? What would this mean? Split-voting would not change the basic parameters of national elections as even this strategic approach is still a blue or green approach. But such behaviour may indicate that voters are ready to think beyond established party camps, arguably pointing to the decreasing significance of the identity factor in Taiwan’s contentious politics.
Here a genuine party alternative comes into play. If the Taiwanese voter had a convincing alternative to the two established camps, and if this alternative could gain enough votes that neither of the two major parties would gain a legislative majority, the political landscape would change tremendously for the better. Such conditions would require coalition-building and compromises, but it would represent a chance to break through the ‘China impasse’ which structures Taiwan’s party system. Parties would need to focus on domestic policies instead of cross-Strait ideology. This outcome presupposes, however, a genuine third party that effectively abstains from assuming blue or green colours. The party must define itself as pragmatic and all-encompassing, focusing on a number of strategic policy fields as major battle grounds: environmental, labour, economic and education policy, to name a few. The party must attract Taiwan’s younger generations by appearing non-ideological, modern, digitally well-versed and speaking a language which is not populist but that everybody understands. The party must be for the ‘status quo’ in terms of cross-Strait relations, building on the simple fact that Taiwan is Taiwan and China is China; the party would be non-committal towards both the ‘One China principle’ and ‘Taiwan independence’.
Such a party would work closely with Taiwan’s many civic organisations and figure as a parliamentary pressure group with respect to both the KMT and the DPP. It would seal a coalition treaty with either the KMT or the DPP and hopefully stick to it the whole legislative period, ready to change sides if such a move was more promising for its political objectives. Such a genuine third party would make Taiwanese politics more volatile in the sense of changing coalition governments. But it would keep a firm distance from both the KMT and the DPP and derive all its legitimation from its matter-of-fact approach to politics. It may relate to the liberal-leftist or liberal-conservative mainstream in Western political systems, thus bringing a new ‘swing’ to Taiwan politics that could eventually make the Taiwanese party landscape more closely resemble its Western counterparts. The party would gain its political leeway from a programmatic declaration to stay away from identity politics and serve as a pragmatic provider of legislative majorities to the benefit of those domestic and foreign policies which Taiwan needs to safeguard its prosperity and security.
Does this all Sound Weird?
Though debatable, Ko Wen-je’s Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) may come closest to a genuine third party as described above. Ko has remained ambiguous in terms of his position on the 1992 consensus, stating that it was his political philosophy to do “what benefits Taiwan as a whole, and what provides the greatest well-being for Taiwanese”. Young Taiwanese like him for his unconventional, hands-on approach to politics. He has strong opinions on a number of policy issues and political traditions, evoking the image of a maverick, often accused of lacking a grand strategy or ideology. But a genuine third party, certainly small in comparison to the big shots in Taiwan’s legislature, would need convincing policies rather than an ideology that too often deflects from a party’s performance sheet concerning practical problem-solving.
According to the latest polling figures, the TPP may gain some 10-12% of the vote which would translate into four at-large seats. This is too little to change the set-up in the Legislative Yuan. A genuine third party would have to win a fair amount of both district candidates and at-large seats. With 15-20% of the total vote and sufficient capability to compete in Taiwan’s election districts, such a party would arguably make a big difference in Taiwan’s parliamentary politics and, over time, change the zero-sum mentality that pervades Taiwan’s political culture. This is certainly a long shot. But Taiwan needs a party that breaks the blue-green impasse with a pragmatic stance on cross-Strait relations and maintains a stern dedication to efficient policy-making in the domestic arena. With the TPP entering the election race and the New Power Party being forced to hedge against DPP absorption, Taiwan’s parliamentary politics may hopefully be heading towards a new era.
Gunter Schubert is Chair of Greater China Studies and Director of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) at the University of Tübingen.
From December 16th 2019 till January 6th 2020, researchers from the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) and Taiwan Studies Program (TSP) present a joint special issue on the forthcoming presidential election that will be held on January 11th 2020.