Written by Milo Hsieh.
In January, Taiwan saw the re-election of its DPP President Tsai Ing-wen. The January election, which saw the DPP once more taking a firm majority in the Legislative Yuan, was a victory for the DPP that also gave rise to smaller parties. The KMT, taking lessons from its defeat, went on to reposition its policy on cross-strait issues with the election of a new party chairman.
With the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), the ruling DPP administration has so far been able to contain and keep infection rates to a remarkable minimum. The first few months of 2020 has seen the DPP government in full control. It has enacted strict measures to restrict access to Taiwan’s border, hand out subsidies to specific groups, and lead the narrative of a successful anti-virus campaign.
As the fear of an outbreak slowly eases and life continues with only some mandated changes to everyday human interaction, politics goes on as usual. The power dynamic has been reshuffling both overtly and subtly in all parties following the election.
DPP’s Confident Majority
The DPP has been able to maintain public confidence with its strong responses to the virus outbreak. President Tsai’s China-sceptical policy, which was initially positioned as a forward-looking policy to shut off borders with China, later proved effective at containing spread. Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung was put in the spotlight as many Taiwanese tune in to the daily 2 PM Coronavirus update.
Tsai’s decision to reappoint Su Tseng-chang as premier on May 20th is indicative of the cabinet’s stability and popularity. The Su cabinet, since its appointment, has been active in managing public relation campaigns to promote its policies, primarily through social media.
Nevertheless, power dynamics continue to play out at the level of the central government, Legislative Yuan, and also at the party level.
In Taipei, presidential secretary-general and former Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu is moving on to head the Examination Yuan; a body unique to Taiwan’s ROC constitution that has relatively little profile. Su Jia-chyuan—who was the previous President of the Legislative Yuan— is taking over her role.
The Legislative Yuan presidency is being filled by Yu Shyi-kun: a former premier under Chen Shui-bian. What with the shuffling out of many younger legislators—ministers who were once swept into the Legislative Yuan in the aftermath of the Sunflower movement—and older, more conservative DPP old guards like Yu swept in, the Legislative Yuan now has fewer progressive voices.
With Tsai returning to the post of DPP chairperson, a position previously occupied by former Presidential Secretary-General Cho Jung-tai during the election, she would be able to exert influence over DPP legislative members through the party leadership.
Currently, the DPP is riding on the tailwind from its successful response to the Coronavirus, in addition to a successful move to recall KMT Mayor Han Kuo-yu. As the party that has dominated Taiwan’s politics in the last five years, Tsai will face challenges both as the leader of Taiwan’s government and as the head of the DPP.
Is KMT in a state of crisis?
The KMT, on the other hand, is struggling to keep its identity as the party is pulled from multiple directions. Though it has been successful in integrating voters from the pan-blue, Chinese-nationalist spectrum, it faces the challenge of appealing to younger voters.
Newly elected Chairperson Johnny Chiang faced the challenge of reforming the authoritarian structure of his party. His intention to improve relations with the US is made difficult by a previous lack of effort at maintaining contact with Washington.
As Taiwan continues to see Beijing’s high-intensity crackdown on protesters, along with its continued coercion on Taiwan, the KMT’s pro-China platform has quickly played to its own detriment throughout the 2020 election.
Furthermore, the effort to detach from a strictly pro-China platform after the election was undermined by its one of its own members. The KMT ruined an attempt to extract Taiwanese business people stuck in China in February when it rushed to take credit from the DPP.
The “Han wave” that once swept through Taiwan was decimated in the leadup to the election. It was buried on June 6th when Han Kuo-yu was recalled from his position as the Mayor of Kaohsiung.
The KMT is struggling to appeal to the public in many dimensions. The opposition towards the DPP agenda has not led the production of any meaningful party platform of its own. Its effort to “digitise” its message through social media campaigns have drawn backlash for sponsoring demeaning, sexist comments. The party’s effort at cultivating talents also appears inefficient compared to the DPP, which has been actively integrating activists of all generations such as Lin Fei-fan and Fan Yun amongst its ranks.
The KMT will face difficult years ahead, but it still has two years to go until the next local level election, and four years until the end of Tsai’s term.
Other Third Parties
After the January election, both the Taiwan State building Party (TSP) and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) entered the Legislative Yuan for the first time.
The TSP was the primary driver behind the recall the Han campaign in Kaohsiung, and its popularity will likely surge with the momentum of the successful recall. The only party with a headquarter in Southern Taiwan (the TSP) is thus well-positioned to advocate for regional and local issues, potentially competing with the DPP in the next election.
Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je’s TPP and the Sunflower activist-founded New Power Party (NPP) are both experimenting as standalone parties without any cooperation with the DPP and the KMT.
The TPP is becoming closer to the KMT despite Mayor Ko’s partnership with the DPP in 2014. In May, former KMT Keelung Mayor candidate, Hsieh Li-kung defected to become the secretary-general of TPP. Vice-spokesperson of the Taipei City government, Chen Kuan-ting, who is a DPP member, also resigned from his post in June. This is likely due to pressure from other members of the TPP.
The NPP continues to push for a progressive agenda, but its influence is limited with only three members in the Legislative Yuan and few elected officials at the local level. Its interests aligned again with the DPP and the TSP in Kaohsiung during the ‘recall vote’ campaign. Still, any signs of cooperation will likely be short-lived as the party positions itself as a progressive opposition to the DPP.
At the moment, the Tsai administration faces little challenge domestically, though this can change quickly. Tsai’s return to the chairperson position of the DPP is a sign that she is cautious not to be rechallenged by members of her party, as is the case during the presidential primary and during the initial half of her first term.
External factors like Beijing’s coercion will continue to define Taiwanese politics. However, Tsai, during her first term, has largely succeeded in establishing her China-wary yet non-provocative policy on Beijing. The Tsai government has so far been able to sway the political attitude on foreign policy to its benefit.
There will be several issues in Tsai’s second term that require careful moving between the five main political parties that are active at different levels. Her party faces competition from both sides of the political spectrum but is also slowly becoming the dominant party that is integrated in Taiwan’s society.
Many proposed changes, such as lowering the voting age from 20 to 18, will require constitutional reforms. These will require consensus and cooperation with all opposition parties in the Legislative Yuan owing to the high barrier to pass any legislation.
These agendas, which require constitutional amendments, are necessary to reform Taiwan’s outdated bureaucracies, but there is little consensus amongst the parties. For the rest of Tsai’s second term, she will likely need to balance the typically conservative public opinion against her reformist agenda.
This article is part of special issue on the President Tsai’s second term.