Taiwan After the Sunflowers: Continuities and Uncertainties

A China Policy Institute policy paper on the potential impact of the U.S., China, and the Sunflower Movement on the 9-in-1 municipal elections and the 2016 presidential elections


Despite the unprecedented occupation of Parliament in March and April, Taiwanese politics have returned to “normal,” with little surprises expected in the year-end nine-in-one municipal elections. However, all the elements that brought about the political crisis in the spring are still in play, and those have the potential to shake up politics as the island heads for presidential and legislative elections in 2016. With President Ma scrambling to accomplish his objectives before he steps down in May that year, and amid signs that the pro-independence DPP could make significant gains in, if not win, the 2016 race, the next 18 months promise to be a period of volatility domestically, which in turn could impact Taiwan’s relations with China on several fronts.

What we need to know

The 24-day occupation of the Legislative Yuan by thousands of members of the “Sunflower Movement” in March and April 2014, and the overnight occupation of the Executive Yuan, led observers to conclude that the political scene would be changed forever. Civil society had demonstrated its ability to challenge the institutions of governance and brought the legislature to a standstill, forcing a halt in negotiations over a trade pact with China. Despite official accusations of violence and irrationality leveled at the activists, a public majority rallied behind the movement, with between 350,000 and 500,000 people participating in a March 30 rally in Taipei. For a while, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) leadership seemed threatened. His popularity ratings dropped to a 9.2%. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), of which Ma is chairman, was split. And a legal battle with Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), the popular speaker of the legislature who was open to concessions with the Sunflowers, had turned against Ma. It was said that the president had been neutralized, that members of his party would force him to step down as chairman, which would undermine his ability to stay the course on China.

Yet Ma survived the crisis, and he appears to have succeeded in quieting dissenters within his party, where he is currently more feared than loved. Negotiations with Beijing have resumed, and Ma, who must step down in May 2016 after serving two consecutive terms, is running out of time and patience. Meanwhile, the Sunflower Movement has splintered and has failed to translate the popular discontent it had channeled so effectively during the occupation into a force that can have an impact on future elections. Furthermore, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has not capitalized on the discontent with the KMT or the “Sunflower effect” and Taiwanese voters remain wary of the party’s ability to govern, especially after two lackluster years under Su Tseng-chang’s (蘇貞昌) chairmanship.

As such, the recent political developments are unlikely to have a major impact on the nine-in-one elections on Nov. 29, which will be fought on predominantly local issues rather than the ideology, politics, and macroeconomics that alimented the Sunflower Movement and which are normally a greater factor in presidential elections. Therefore, while continuity is expected through the year-end elections, national politics, identity issues, and the “China factor” will re-emerge from 2015 until the presidential race in 2016. Developments in Hong Kong, which many Taiwanese are following very closely, will also affect perceptions of China and ‘unification’ among Taiwanese. Incidents, mass arrests, perhaps even bloodshed, will have serious consequences on the government’s ability to deepen ties with Beijing, due to attendant growing domestic pressures in Taiwan.

While President Ma succeeded in weathering the Sunflower crisis, the underlying factors that engendered it have not been addressed. Recent moves by Taiwan’s law enforcement and security apparatus giving them expanded powers to deal with protests could indicate that the state is preparing for greater unrest. President Ma’s impatience, combined with activist groups that, though disorganized for the time being have not been defeated, is a recipe for trouble, as both sides have made it clear that they will not give an inch.

Meanwhile, a re-energized DPP under chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who is actively engaging China behind the scenes in hopes of finding a modus vivendi, will pose a solid challenge to the KMT in 2016, even more so if it succeeds in allying itself with civil society. Despite their disagreements, the DPP and social movements will be forced to strike an alliance of convenience through 2016. By recruiting several former Sunflower activists into her party, Tsai, who is expected to be the DPP candidate in 2016, seems to have understood the necessity of such an alliance.

Still, her willingness to expand the scope of her party’s engagement with China could allow Beijing to play the KMT against the DPP in a race to see which party can deliver the most in cross-strait relations and thus force the DPP in a direction it did not want to go, one which is certain to poison the party’s relations with social movements.

For its part, the U.S. remains wary of the DPP, mostly for what it regards as an unfocused China policy and, above all, its “pro-independence” stance. Obsessed with stability in the Taiwan Strait, Washington could therefore feel compelled to intervene, as it did in late 2011, in a way that advantages the KMT, which it regards as a more reliable, or at least predictable, actor. However, given the current context, any move on Washington’s part that limits the choices Taiwanese can make on cross-strait issues could fuel anti-American sentiment on the island and provoke further unrest.

Uncertainty, and perhaps greater political instability, will thus characterize President Ma’s last 18 months in office.

The full China Policy Institute Policy Paper is available for download on the University of Nottingham web site.

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