Written by Ian Inkster.
It’s probably a bit far-fetched to argue that a one-issue democracy is as bad as a one-party autocracy! But the juxtaposition serves to focus thought. Certainly, although not every political debate centres on or surrounds the issue of relations with China and the offshoot case for Taiwanese independence, at election times, particularly Presidential election times, the issue always come to the fore. At times, this has been stimulated by either or both of Chinese or American interventions, just prior to the election date, in favour or against one of the two major parties. Historically, perhaps the elusive ‘safe hands’ of the KMT have benefited from this a little more than the slippery reformism of the DPP, but this is certainly no iron law, as recent weeks have shown.
As I have argued in other places, 2019 saw the ironic combination of measurably greater moves towards mature democracy and a seeming floating of electoral favour away from the DPP. Clearly, Tsai and other significant figures were increasingly worried, not so much by the KMT in its traditional role, but by new independent politicians, smaller new political parties, the especially regional support for local and city politicians, along with other elements of a broader democracy evolving quite quickly from 2018.
But alongside this, Taiwan demonstrated a broader base of policy and ideological discussion. If anything, it was perhaps this latter that highlighted, for a portion of the electorate, the slowness of actual policy reform and change in governance itself. Inexpensive progressive reforms flourished—witness gay marriage and some move towards indigenous policy shift— but complex and expensive policy changes were harder to come by—witness housing and urban environments, lagging positive outcomes of the Southbound policy, stagnation in attempts to move R&D initiatives from the state to private enterprise, tardiness of policies for greater and empathetic development of eastern Taiwan, and so on.
So, though liberals and radicals quite reasonably hoped for a clear DPP victory, it was by no means certain that it would necessarily lead to radical domestic reforms. In the event the DPP presidential victory was overwhelming, the Legislature was doing enough to prevent too many future problems in passing legislation. However, the greatest feature of the January election was the extent to which the Tsai victory resulted from her personal and very vocal stance on China, the ‘one country, two systems’ formulation, and Taiwanese independence, as well as her rhetorical use of the trigger injection into Taiwan of the mass protests in Hong Kong. That this significant, but comparatively clear element, explains much more than does electors’ happiness concerning DPP domestic reforms, is measured in the mundane performance at the elections for the Legislature, where the DPP actually lost some ground. In contrast, Tsai in Taiwan resembled Johnson in Britain, personal high visibility through a straightforward, oft-repeated message.
It is possible that, as in past times, the China element will decline as a vital motor of Taiwanese politics as we move further away from electioneering. However, to date, Tsai has continued her China provocations on most major public platforms but has yet to announce any medium-term diplomatically informed and sensitive strategies for ongoing discussions with China, a most difficult enterprise at the best of times. Default positioning is not good enough, for default positions become unquestioned rubrics, inhibiting any sort of nuanced give and take between two sides. And this game-playing, of provocation and response, is too important to also be a plaything of electoral politics, as the perturbations caused by Donald Trump have shown time and again. But the USA is big, and Taiwan is small and cannot count its friends.
The conclusion is that the DPP should take the risk of dropping the rhetoric of China whilst seeking ways of beginning more positive diplomatic exchanges. And this should be undertaken on a broad basis. DPP negotiations that are not within a reasonably broad-based consensus at home are unlikely to progress far, for domestic quarrels do not make for confident diplomacy on either side of a table.
As importantly, the DPP must now make it abundantly clear that it is taking the opportunity offered through the securing of a sizeable electoral advantage—whatever its real basis—to develop a coherent policy reform package that is debated publicly, extensively and inclusively. Even though the next few years of the global economy do not look very promising, there are a few opportunities: investment may significantly flow to Taiwan to escape US tariffs on China, there could be useful redirection of financial activity from Hong Kong to Taiwan, Southbound policy may be rejuvenated through Taiwan businesses based in China returning (at least partially) to Taiwan where they could benefit from new government incentives. Opportunities need to be converted to become outcomes. In this case, a Taiwanese DPP government focused on significant policy issues could make all the difference.
Ian Inkster is professorial research associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London; a senior fellow at the Taiwan Studies Programme, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham; and the editor of the international journal, History of Technology.