Sunday, December 2, 2018

Taiwan Politics for the Novice: December 2018 Edition

Note to readers: The following is my own flippant, heavily biased brief introduction to Taiwan party politics for the absolute newcomer. I saw a niche that needed to be filled so I filled it. I deliberately made it brief. It is not meant to be academic, comprehensive, or super-detailed. If you want that, look somewhere else.

What is the ROC?

The Republic of China, the official name of the government. There is a lot of history behind why this country, full of people who don’t want to be ruled by Beijing, is called the "Republic of China". And while this history is well worth reading up on, I won't go into it here. Here’s my own explainer about why “Taiwan (Republic of China)” is acceptable but “Taiwan, China” is not.

Where shall we begin?

Taiwan's certainly got the left/right political spectrum that you see elsewhere, but thanks to the country’s unique circumstances, it gets subsumed beneath what’s often called a “green”/”blue” polarity. Briefly, the “green” side emphasizes a Taiwanese cultural identity, while the “blue” side emphasizes a more Chinese identity.

It is important to note that, even among the staunchly “blue”, the vast majority of people would be horrified to wake up and find Taiwan had become a province of the People’s Republic of China, and anyone who tells you differently is either misinformed, or trying to misinform you.

What is the DPP?

The biggest political party on the “green” side of the spectrum.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was founded in 1986, in the waning years of Taiwan’s military dictatorship. It coalesced from the various groups opposing the ruling regime. In 2000 they won the presidency; President Chen Shui-bian (who I will henceforth call “A-Bian”) ran Taiwan until 2008. A-Bian eventually ended up spending time in prison for corruption.

A-Bian is out of prison now, but he is no longer the influential force in Taiwan politics he once was, as the current crop of DPP leaders have every intention of moving on from his era.

The DPP came roaring back in wave elections in 2014 and 2016, and as of right now, late 2018, the DPP controls the presidency and the single-chamber legislature, the Legislative Yuan. However, they were punished by voters in the local elections of November 2018, and now they’re feeling quite shaken and nervous about the upcoming general election in January 2020.

What is the KMT?

The biggest fish on the “blue” side of the spectrum.

While the DPP formed in opposition to the old military dictatorship, the Kuomintang (KMT) ran the old military dictatorship. The modern-day KMT is directly descended from Chiang Kai-shek’s political organization back when he was the biggest fish over in China (and Taiwan was ruled by Japan). After Chiang lost China, the KMT ensconced themselves in Taiwan (no one cared whether this was OK with the people already living here) and they ran the one-party state that ruled Taiwan until the dictatorship gradually gave way to democracy in the 1990s.

Nowadays, the KMT wants us all to move on from its military dictatorship, “retake the Mainland” past, and would like us to see it as a modern political party. For example, they would like to brand themselves as better for the economy than the DPP. Whether there is indeed hard evidence that they are actually better for the economy than the DPP is another matter entirely.

Following A-Bian’s eight years in power, Taiwan was run for another eight years, 2008 to 2016, by KMT president Ma Ying-jeou and a KMT-controlled legislature. Prior to becoming president, Ma had a public reputation as an anti-corruption crusader, emblematic of a dynamic younger generation of KMT politicians. For much of his administration, Ma stressed the economic benefits his policies were purportedly bringing to Taiwan.

However, few things make Taiwanese voters dislike you as much as having you run the Taiwanese government, and now Ma Ying-jeou is not fondly remembered by most Taiwanese, including a sizable proportion of those who voted for him twice. He tends to be seen as someone who would happily sell out Taiwan to China. Let’s move on to….

Photo: Dana Ter, Taipei Times

Who are the Sunflowers?

The Sunflowers do not constitute a political party. In fact, maybe that should be “did not”, not “do not”. When historians 100 years from now write about this period of Taiwan’s history, they may say the Sunflower movement was well and truly over by 2018.

But the Sunflowers are part of how Taiwan got to where it is today, so I’m going to give them a brief mention.

In 2014, anger over KMT pressure to push through a trade deal with China that was widely seen as selling out Taiwan sparked several weeks of massive protests, mostly peaceful (with some exceptions), that most famously centered on a weeks-long occupation of the Legislative Yuan by activists. This is what we call the Sunflower Movement.

The Sunflowers are strongly associated with the elections of November 2014 and January 2016, in which the KMT was heavily punished by voters. The DPP reaped the benefits of this, as they had the resources and party organization to take advantage, but it would be a mistake to conflate the Sunflowers with the DPP.

When I say Sunflowers, read it as shorthand for “Taiwanese people, mostly young, who have a strong Taiwanese identity and resist attempts to sell their country out to China”. They also tend to favor what Westerners consider socially progressive politics. Their interests tend to dovetail with those of the DPP on that first point, and rather less so on the second.

What is the NPP?

Taiwan has a lot of small parties, most of which are referred to in English with their 3-letter abbreviations (PFP, TSU, and so on). I’m just going to mention the NPP, or New Power Party, as its fortunes appear to be rising in 2018.

The NPP was founded in 2015 by Sunflowers and Sunflower-sympathetic politicians, and while it’s not the only small party to be roughly aligned with the Sunflower goals, it has had by far the most electoral success. Its members tend to skew young. With the new crop of city councillors elected in November 2018, I suspect the average NPP elected official is now younger than me (and it's highly disconcerting for me that I'm now at the age where I'm older than many elected officials). While I don’t know if the NPP will necessarily still exist as a party in 20 years, it will certainly have a lasting influence on Taiwan politics.

What happened in November 2018?

Local elections happened, that’s what. In the local elections, voters go to the polls to select mayors, county chiefs, city councillors, and neighborhood chiefs. The DPP didn’t do so well in these elections; notably, the mayorships in Taichung and Kaohsiung flipped to the KMT.

There were also an absolutely messy set of referendums. Long story short, the most notable result of the referendums was the rejection of same-sex marriage, which disappointed and infuriated socially progressive Taiwanese.

When I say “Long story short”, I’m not kidding. There’s a lot that I elided. For more details, see Taiwan Asked Voters 10 Questions. It Got Some Unexpected Answers in the New York Times, Taiwan Elections 2018: The New Referendum Law and the Rejection of the DPP in Taiwan Insight, and Energy policy and referenda, by the same author as the Taiwan Insight article, on the Frozen Garlic blog.

Photo: Ann Wang, Reuters

Who is Tsai Ing-wen?

The president of Taiwan. She was also the leader of the DPP, until she stepped down to take responsibility for her party’s disappointing showing in the November 2018 election.

The second DPP president, Tsai puts forward a very different public image from A-Bian. When Taiwanese voters like her, they tend to characterize her as a wise, careful leader who won’t sell the country out to China. When they don’t like her, they see her as overly cautious and indecisive. For instance, many social progressives are furious with her because they see her support for same-sex marriage as disastrously tepid, at a time when it really mattered.

It’s important to note that Taiwanese people love to hate on incumbent politicians, and if you hear loads of frustration directed Tsai's way between now and the January 2020 elections, that does not necessarily mean she’s fated to lose. Lots of people are going to hate on her and then vote for her. It’s the Taiwanese way.

Photo: South China Morning Post

Who is Ko Wen-je?

The mayor of Taipei, a political independent, and one of the most prominent politicians in Taiwan. A medical doctor and National Taiwan University professor, Ko’s public image is of a rumpled middle-aged absent-minded academic who wouldn’t know how to be flashy and polished if his life depended on it.

Ko came to power in the anti-KMT wave election of 2014. His nerdy, straight-talking persona appealed to young people fed up with traditional politicians, including most of the Taipei-based Sunflowers. The DPP saw the Ko wave that was building, and wisely decided not to field a mayoral candidate in Taipei. Ko defeated his tepid KMT opponent in a landslide.

As mayor, Ko’s inability to control the pipe from his brain to his mouth has alienated many of his supporters. The guy's got a tendency to make weird male chauvinist remarks. He also has made unnervingly pro-China comments, to the consternation of many people. After all, Ko was originally elected with the support of people who wanted Taiwan to be more cautious towards China.

In the 2018 Taipei mayoral election, the DPP decided to run a candidate, setting up a three-way race that many people predicted Ko would lose badly, but on election day he very narrowly edged out his KMT opponent to win a second term.

Now it seems highly probable that Ko, with his loose mouth and uncertain stance on China, is considering a presidential run in 2020.

I’m going to mention one more politician in this post. A Taiwan politics aficionado from this past summer, reading this post via a time warp, is likely to think something like, “Huang Kuo-chang? Probably not. Lai Ching-te? Nah. It’s Freddy, right? You’re going to say something about Freddy!”

You dear, sweet, naive person from a more innocent time. Things have changed in the past few months, and everyone who spent October and November 2018 in Taiwan knows damn well who’s coming next.

Photo: Lin Hsin-de, Taipei Times

Who is Han Kuo-yu?

There was a time, just a few months ago, when Han Kuo-yu was best remembered for when he literally beat up A-Bian that one time back in the 1990s.

Later on, he worked in an agricultural wing of the government, which is why he’s embracing cabbages in the picture above. That’s from when he announced his candidacy for head of the KMT in 2017. (He lost.)

And that’s where things stood a few months ago, when the KMT nominated Han to be mayor of Kaohsiung. Han threw himself into the race with far more energy (and money) than anyone anticipated. He organized huge rallies that attracted media attention. He went on a nationwide advertising blitz. I saw his face plastered on signs all over Taipei, which is normal for a Taipei candidate but unprecedented for a Kaohsiung candidate.

He also was known for making vague and probably infeasible promises for how he would make Kaohsiung great again (no red MKGA hats, as far as I know), and rumors swirled about possible ties to China.

And in the end he won, defeating a competent but colorless DPP opponent in an election that prompted more than a few comparisons to the rise of a certain current President of the United States of America.

Part of me wonders if this was really the plan. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Han had figured he would lose this election, but in the process lay the groundwork for a 2020 presidential run. He’s certainly done a good job differentiating himself from the blandness of the rest of the KMT.

I don’t see a Han 2020 presidential campaign happening now. The election’s in January 2020, not November, so Han would have to drop everything awfully soon to start campaigning. (Ko Wen-je, on the other hand, is already established in the job and has a record to run on, so I can absolutely see him launching a 2020 campaign.) At the moment, Han is the hottest politician in Taiwan. Will we one day see President Han Kuo-yu? Or will November 2018 be the high point of his career? I do not know.


Following are some thoughts that commentators (and online commenters) with a surface-level familiarity with Taiwan politics seem to express. They tend to be the sort of thing that makes sense if you know a little bit about Taiwan but don’t really know enough to see nuance.

Hey, there's nothing to be ashamed of. "I know a little bit but not really enough to see nuance" is how much I know about an awful lot of countries.

Rookie mistake #1: The idea that Chen Shui-bian is far more prominent in 2018 than he actually is. Think of the power and influence that George W. Bush wields in the USA in 2018 and you’ll have a sense of A-Bian’s true current importance. I mean, I suppose it’s possible that A-Bian is a nefarious puppetmaster who is influencing Taiwan society from behind the scenes, but I’ve seen people online who seem to think everyone knows A-Bian is the leader of the “green” half of Taiwan’s political spectrum. That may have been true once, but it hasn’t been true for a very long time now.

Rookie mistake #2: the tendency to conflate the DPP and the Taiwan independence movement. This is music to the ears of those who want people to think Taiwan is rightfully a province of China, and the desire to keep Taiwan free is a sinister plot by a political faction. In reality, the DPP is a messy big-tent political party beset by loads of problems (including many of its own making), it’s perfectly natural that a lot of Taiwanese who want a free Republic of Taiwan do not support the DPP, and not everything connected to Taiwan independence is a DPP plot.

1 comment:

Jenna Cody said...

Rookie mistake #3 (though you covered this): Assuming that there is any substantial debate about whether Taiwan is "a part of China" in Taiwanese society. There isn't (or rather, there is, but it's a very tiny and rapidly-aging segment of the population). There's debate about what kind of independence Taiwan has, or whether de jure independence is possible, and what the name and symbols of that country should be and what its relationship as a country to China should be, but the question of whether Taiwan is/should be a part of China is basically settled. Along those lines, assuming that the KMT view of China (that Taiwanese culture is ultimately Chinese, and closer ties with China will always bring benefits) is the default view. It's common enough but it is not the default.

Rookie mistake #5: Assuming that every election is a referendum on how Taiwan feels about China.