Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

As Taiwan's children of democracy come of age, vote will be about more than China

by Ko Shu-Ling

Kyodo

On Jan. 11, Taiwan will elect a new government, its seventh since 1996 when a constitutional amendment gave Taiwanese a say in who would represent them at the highest levels of island politics.

If projections hold, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Tsai Ing-wen will be re-elected for a second term, although the party’s legislative majority may be reduced.

As in 2016, the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party has been plagued by anti-mainland sentiment, sparked this time by unrest in Hong Kong, along with the party’s choice of presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, whose populist appeal has declined significantly since his surprise victory in last year’s Kaohsiung mayoral election.

Like in every election in Taiwan, the overwhelming preoccupation is how mainland China will react, especially given its strong disapproval of Tsai and her independence-leaning DPP.

Tsai’s refusal to accept the “1992 consensus” that both sides are “one China” infuriated Beijing, and her return to office “may cause the volcano to erupt,” said former Mainland Affairs Council Chairman Su Chi.

Others are optimistic, like Tamkang University’s Wong Ming-hsien, who believes Tsai’s re-election will prompt concessions as she and Chinese President Xi Jinping look to secure their political legacies.

Most, however, see no change likely. Taiwanese continue to fear that closer cross-strait ties only mean political subjugation, while Xi will remain hostile lest a softer approach be perceived as weakness by other adversaries, domestic and regional.

Yet communist-ruled China will not be the only question on voters’ minds in January.

Taiwan’s 2020 elections will also be a referendum on how the ruling and opposition parties are progressing at a time of broad generational change as the first Taiwanese born in a fully democratic, post-1996 Taiwan become eligible to vote.

In the DPP’s case, whatever advantage Tsai has gained from the Hong Kong protests, her true strength lies in changes that began a decade ago after the party’s devastating defeat in the 2008 general election that brought to power her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou.

The scale of the 2008 loss convinced many that change was needed, leading to Tsai’s election as DPP chair.

A little-known bureaucrat with no party standing, Tsai would also become the party’s 2012 presidential nominee.

She, too, lost to Ma. But by then she had quietly begun to unify a party long plagued by factionalism and to adopt what Stanford University’s Kharis Templeman called “a clear youth-oriented recruitment and campaign strategy.”

Senior DPP leaders, many passionately committed to independence, ceded control to more pragmatic, next-generation figures like popular Tainan Mayor William Lai, whom Tsai recruited in 2017 as her premier.

Recently the youth drive has included Lin Fei-fan, a former leader of the Sunflower student movement, which in 2014 stormed the legislature and helped defeat a high-profile cross-strait trade agreement that many felt threatened the island’s sovereignty.

In July, 31-year-old Lin was appointed the DPP’s deputy secretary-general.

And last month, the party announced nine new legislative candidates for January, each under 40 and with no previous political experience.

Young candidates don’t necessarily attract young votes.

Yet as Templeman points out, “Young voters overwhelmingly supported Tsai in 2016,” and the DPP since then has fronted legislation that appeals to such voters: subsidized child care, pension reform and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Such policies also address the problem of wealth distribution now troubling many developed economies.

Meeting the needs and expectations of working Taiwanese, comments J. Michael Cole, senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, “will be important, not only to win re-election but also to neutralize this segment as a future ground of support for populists like Han.”

The KMT has struggled on all counts.

While impressive, Ma’s victories in 2008 and 2012 encouraged him to use his legislative majority to try to push through his controversial 2014 trade agreement, producing not only student rebellion, but wider mistrust of the KMT’s pro-China stance, leading to the party’s crushing defeat in 2016.

This mistrust remains strong, thanks to the turmoil in Hong Kong, so if Han is elected in January, it is unlikely, in Cole’s view, that the Taiwanese public would allow him to give Beijing what it wants.

However, the KMT’s problem is not only that many see it as a path to cross-strait domination.

Han’s win over more moderate candidates in the party’s democratic primary reflects the fact that its main support base is older voters who, despite being more dependable than young, are by nature a shrinking constituency.

Older Taiwanese also tend to have less interest in progressive policies of the kind introduced by the newly technocratic DPP, especially when it costs them money.

Despite manifest need, the KMT never tried to reform the pension system for fear of angering retirees, especially teachers and military personnel who enjoyed generous benefits in return for party loyalty.

Policy ambivalence seems to be a plus for Han, who rarely talks about practical proposals for governance, while advocating grand schemes like putting national flags on top of Taiwan’s tallest mountains and displaying all the treasures in the National Palace Museum at once.

Silly as they seem, Academia Sinica political scientist Nathan Batto said that such proposals speak a symbolic language meant to inspire Chinese patriotism.

Nostalgia for the authoritarian past also plays well.

With the cooperation of the KMT-affiliated China Youth Corps, a theater group from the mainland will tour central and southern Taiwan this month performing a unification-themed program titled “The Love of a Chinese Family, a Celebration of Taiwan.”

Party unity has not been well served by such tactics.

With little tolerance for dissent, KMT bosses have stripped at least five individuals of membership for criticizing Han, while moderates like Terry Gou, who lost to Han in the primary, are seeking alternative political platforms.

If there is a positive outlook, Templeman suggests, it may be that a major loss in January, like the DPP’s in 2008, will discredit the KMT’s old guard, paving the way for its own rebuilding.