Here Comes Taiwan’s Big Political Realignment

Co-author: Jonathan Sullivan*

Image: CC 2.0 by michaelrpf/Flickr

Image Credit: CC 2.0 by michaelrpf/Flickr

A calamitous performance in Saturday’s local elections confirmed 2014 as an annus horribilis for the Kuomintang (KMT) and its Chairman Ma Ying-jeou. The embattled Ma signaled on Tuesday that he is ready to give in to calls to relinquish his chairmanship of the party. Many of his lieutenants have already beaten him to the exit. Ma has just over a year remaining until he is constitutionally obliged to stand down as president and many colleagues and supporters are counting down the days until he leaves office, taking (they hope) his toxic approval ratings with him. Hamstrung by widespread opposition to economic policies that have not yielded promised results and predicated on rapprochement with China that has moved too far and too quickly for most Taiwanese, the prospects for Ma’s policy agenda are dim. The salient question for the remainder of Ma’s tenure is this: how much damage will he inflict on the KMT’s chances of rebounding in national elections scheduled for early 2016?

However, in their enthusiasm to rationalize their performance in the “9-in-1” elections – the first time that nine different elections at local levels were combined into a single voting day – Ma’s colleagues would do well to look beyond scapegoating the outgoing president. The fact is the KMT’s woes run deeper than the unpopular president. With its gerontocracy and princelings, the party has lost touch with the electorate, neglecting its changing demographics and preoccupations. The extent of their estrangement should have been clear in the spring, when two years of large-scale popular protests culminated in students occupying the legislature for three weeks. Inexplicably, the party that had once skillfully adapted from authoritarian rule to democratic competition failed to heed the warnings. Even as changes in Taiwanese society became increasingly obvious, the KMT clung to its traditional electoral playbook of using vastly superior financial resources to run negative campaigns and leveraging long nurtured local networks. Although these tactics have worked well in the past, they failed to connect with voters in a rapidly changing post-Sunflower era. This is particularly true of younger voters who are the most alienated of all thanks to stagnant wages, poor job prospects and rising property costs.

The KMT’s tone-deafness was nicely embodied this week by Jason Hu, a veteran KMT figure who lost his re-election campaign after serving for thirteen years as Taichung mayor. Although Hu acknowledged that the KMT had lost because it did not understand young people, he then proceeded to dismiss the younger generation as materialistic ingrates (“if you give them an iPhone 5, they are still mad at you because you did not give them an iPhone 6.”) Hu was clearly not paying attention to the predominantly youth-led social movements that culminated in the Sunflower occupation, itself the perfect embodiment of the seriousness, dedication and sacrifice of many young Taiwanese.

The KMT disconnect was especially apparent in the crown jewel of the 11,000 public offices up for grabs in the recent elections: the race for mayor of Taipei City, a KMT stronghold since 1998. After intra-party divisions, Sean Lien, scion of a fabulously wealthy political family with a history of electoral futility (Lien Chan’s feeble third place in the 2000 presidential election, for instance) secured the KMT nomination, where he ran against an independent candidate, Ko Wen-je. Ko’s “anti-politics-as-usual” candidacy perfectly captured the Sunflower Zeitgeist, and the DPP wisely stepped aside, endorsing Ko but watching from the sidelines as Lien proceeded to make a mess of his campaign. One of the curiosities of the campaign was that Ko headed the team of physicians that successfully treated Sean Lien after he was accidentally shot by a gangster while on the stump for a KMT colleague in 2010. Typifying their misjudgment of the political mood, the Lien camp put out disparaging remarks about Ko’s contribution to saving Lien’s life. Lien’s entire campaign was peppered with similar faux pas, all contributing to the prevailing sense that the candidate was an arrogant young princeling and political neophyte flailing out of his depth.

Another irony of the campaign was that Ko’s political inexperience, apparent from the many gaffes he also made, became a badge of honor. The difference lay in Ko’s demonstrably humble demeanor, unpracticed sincerity and complete indifference to politicking. In the post-Sunflower era, these characteristics resonated strongly with many of the city’s voters, especially the youth. While Lien marshaled his party’s considerable resources in a remorseless quest to find and throw mud that would stick to his opponent, Ko guilelessly delivered his vision for Taipei; a better functioning and more participatory city free from the malice and machinations of partisan politics. That he was also able to exploit social media was the icing on top, helping him re-create the kind of “yes we can” buzz that surrounded the campaigns of former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and Barack Obama.

In normal circumstances the political dynamics at the local level in Taiwan are relatively immune to national political issues. Local networks and factions play a crucial role in channeling resources to supporters, and local elections are usually a competition to control access to these resources. Through its years of authoritarian rule and monopoly on state finances, the KMT developed powerful and enduring local networks. To a certain extent, the political parties’ preferred policies or performance are irrelevant at this level of competition, except that the party in charge at the national level, currently the KMT, is usually better placed to acquire and distribute funds to supporters.

In these most recent elections, however, parochial interests appear to have taken a back seat. The scale of the gains for the opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is a significant and worrying sign for the KMT as it looks ahead to the 2016 elections. The KMT’s unprecedented losses not only give the DPP the initiative but also turn Taiwan’s electoral geography on its head. Since the end of the corruption-tainted administration of the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian in 2008, the DPP’s support base has become increasingly concentrated in the deep south of the country, which is traditionally the hotbed of Taiwanese nationalism. To win a national election, the DPP had to attract other segments of the electorate, such as young and economically disadvantaged voters who have been marginalized by Ma’s economic policies and dismissive attitude. Having been bypassed by the civic movements that eventually coalesced under the Sunflower banner, the local elections suggest the DPP has now succeeded in getting across its message of economic justice and harnessing discontent with the KMT…(cont.)

This article, published in The National Interest on December 3, continues here.

*Jonathan Sullivan is Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham.

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