Nationalist Dealignment in 2014, Realignment in 2016?

The coming battle between pro-Taiwan and pro-CCP forces could seriously undermine the influence of Taiwan’s traditional political parties
Ek-hong Ljavakaw Sia

On Nov. 29, Taiwan will hold its nine-in-one local elections, with a record 11,130 posts up for election. However, the race for Taipei mayor has attracted the most attention among voters both inside and outside the capital. Why is this the case? In addition to the significance of Taipei as the nation’s capital and the idiosyncrasies of the three major candidates, a crucial but often hidden reason is that the election for Taipei mayor has become a key battleground in the fight between Chinese and Taiwanese nationalism.

Unlike most Western democracies, the major political fault line in Taiwan is not the left-right divide, but the struggle between rival nationalisms, centering on issues such as the conflict between Taiwan independence and unification (with China), national identity, transitional justice, “ethnic” tension, and policy toward China.

Nevertheless, the nationalist cleavage is experiencing a dealignment, making it increasingly blurred and ill defined. During the past thirty years, nationalist politics in Taiwan have been closely intertwined with ethnic identity and party competition. However, in recent years, nationalist politics in Taiwan have become increasingly detached from ethnic identity and party competition, and have instead become entangled in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) strategy of economic nationalism — the so-called “promoting unification by economic means” (以經促統). The end result of this realignment might be a “Taiwan version of the ‘war of 1% vs. 99%’ with Chinese characteristics.” The cross-Strait crony political-business complex belonging to the 1% (hereafter, the “Red-Blue-Gold Alliance”) seeks not only the economic and environmental exploitation of the 99% of Taiwanese, but also the denial of aspirations to make Taiwan a genuine (that is, de jure) independent state.

The first aspect of the dealignment is the uncoupling of the nationalist positions and ethnic origins of the candidates. Neil Peng (馮光遠), a popular waishengren satirist running as an independent in the Taipei mayor election, expresses a lucid and radical Taiwanese nationalism, advocating resistance to the encroachment upon Taiwan’s political autonomy by the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance and preaching the removal of the Republic of China’s (ROC) colonialism from Taiwan. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Sean Lien (連勝文) originates from a prominent banshan (半山) family (banshan literally means half-mainlander, or conversely, half-Taiwanese) and is seen to be acting as the CCP-favored agent for the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance in the election.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-backed independent candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), meanwhile, comes from a native Taiwanese family that suffered in the 228 Massacre of 1947), and has turned his nationalist attacks solely towards the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance while glossing over the ROC’s colonization on Taiwan and issues of transitional justice in order to avoid antagonizing KMT supporters. While in previous elections nationalist politics were entwined with ethnic factors, in this election they have clearly become uncoupled.

The second aspect is the dissociation of nationalism-oriented social forces from the two main parties. The ambiguous, self-deceiving ROC-version of Chinese nationalism propagated by the KMT appears increasingly anachronistic in a democratized Taiwan. While supporters of this ideology may have begun to disassociate themselves from the KMT after it formally declared its policy of “suppressing Taiwan independence by aligning with the CCP (聯共制台獨)” in 2005, this phenomenon was most evident in the current election.

First, in the KMT closed primary election, Lien, a widely recognized pampered son of a rich half-Taiwanese family lacking any political experience except for his success in ostensibly becoming the CCP-favored agent for the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance, won 67% of the KMT party members’ votes, significantly ahead of the 30% won by the second placed candidate Ting Shou-chung (丁守中), a second-generation waishengren legislator with a wholesome image and the support of KMT chairman Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

One should not forget Ma’s previous popularity among loyal supporters of the KMT: in 2005, Ma as the then Taipei City mayor, won a landslide victory in the KMT chairman election with 72.4% of the vote, against 27.6% for Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), a native Taiwanese who has been speaker of the Legislative Yuan since 1999. It appears that many ideologically oriented iron votes in the blue camp are turning “red” and are thus no longer under the KMT’s control. The reason is understandable: in the context of cross-Strait integration and KMT-CCP cooperation, the difference between the ROC-version and the PRC-version of Chinese nationalism is becoming increasingly unrecognizable. In this context, for the traditional “iron vote” KMT supporters, the CCP is looking increasingly like the more plausible and powerful brand spokesman for Chinese nationalism.

Moreover, Ma’s policy of intensifying cross-Strait exchanges after 2008 has allowed the CCP to bypass the KMT central party organization and make direct connections with pro-KMT local factions. The alliance between the KMT and the local factions is founded on clientelist exchanges rather than ideology. Loyalty toward the KMT based on the philosophy of “whoever suckles me is my mother” (有奶便是娘) can easily be transferred to another more generous patron, that is, the CCP. In this election cycle, few KMT-nominated candidates have asked Ma to support their campaigns. Of course, the main reason is that they are unwilling to be encumbered with Ma’s extreme unpopularity. However, this election features six independent candidates with pro-KMT local factions standing in municipal elections against the official KMT-nominated candidates. Attentive observers may note that local factions are no longer exclusively reliant on the KMT because there is a more powerful patron competing for their loyalty.

Finally, voters who identify as Taiwanese but previously voted for the KMT have begun to have serious doubts about the party’s cross-Strait policies and become attracted by a third force outside the two main parties resisting the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance. To conclude, in terms of party competition, the KMT will end up as its own gravedigger by aligning with the CCP, like drinking poison to quench thirst.

Pro-Taiwanese nationalism social forces began to disassociate themselves from the DPP during Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) second term. A group of academics and intellectuals who had long supported Taiwan’s democratization and the pursuit of Taiwan independence released the “715 declaration” in 2006 after Chen was accused of corruption and began, in the view of many, to manipulate antagonistic nationalist conflicts to secure his own position. This was the beginning of the pro-Taiwanese nationalism social forces’ dissociation from the DPP.

In 2008, when the student-based “Wild Strawberry Movement” protested the Ma government for violating human rights and freedom of speech through the excessive use of police force when providing security for a visiting Chinese official, the DPP was excluded from the movement because students had no trust in it. Thereafter, the DPP was either absent or excluded, or played only a trivial role as a follower in the succession of both large and small protests on social issues or against the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance.

In contrast, social movements have gradually gained confidence and experience from repeated and increasingly large mobilization. Many ordinary citizens have become firm Taiwanese nationalists through participation in these protests. These citizens increasingly believe that cooperation with the DPP will not lead them to becoming co-opted or manipulated by politicians. Nevertheless, they have low expectations of the DPP, often regarding the party as merely an easily dispensable teammate. In the past twenty years, the DPP had served as the main organizational vehicle and agenda setter for Taiwanese nationalism; nowadays, however, this role is increasingly being taken over by civil groups. A scene from the Sunflower Movement in March 2014 manifested this leadership transition vividly. When students occupied the chambers of the Legislative Yuan to protest the passage of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), DPP legislators were reduced to guarding the entrance to the chamber on rotation, and delivering cigarettes, food, and water to the students inside.

Pro-Taiwanese nationalist social forces function in two ways in this election. In the winner-takes-all election for Taipei mayor, Ko was not willing to join the DPP but is instead running as an independent representing the “Opposition Alliance.” Given that the social momentum that sustained Ko overwhelmed the DPP’s moribund reputation, the DPP eventually gave way to Ko, yielding the leadership of Opposition Alliance to Ko and choosing not to nominate its own candidate. The main force behind Ko’s campaign is a large group of passionate netizens lacking in any formal organization. These netizens offer Ko spontaneous support and defend him against attacks by his opponents, while also relentlessly mocking and criticizing Lien in very creative and humorous ways. The most serious, profound, and radical criticism against Lien and the powers behind him has for the most part come from netizens. With an unfailing supply of unpaid netizens working on his behalf, Ko can compete with the extremely well resourced Lien camp at minimum cost.

Moreover, with netizens occupying the radical positions, Ko can focus his efforts on winning over floating or light-blue voters who are also fed up with the KMT government or disgusted with the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance by putting forward various attractive and politically uncontroversial municipal policies. The passionate involvement of netizens can hardly be explained by a belief that Ko will be a good mayor. In fact, their involvement reflects a widespread fear among the young generation that should Lien win the election, they will face the nightmare of neoliberal capitalism “with Chinese crony characteristics.”

Pro-Taiwanese nationalist social forces are also involved in the multi-member municipal councilor elections, primarily competing against the DPP. Green Party Taiwan (GPT) and Wing of Radical Politics (WRP, 基進側翼), both of which were deeply involved in the Sunflower Movement, have nominated twelve and five candidates for city councilor respectively. Although candidates are few in number, they are much better at agenda setting than those nominated by the two main parties. The GPT has declared its support for Taiwan independence in its constitution and focuses on environmental issues, while the WRP proclaims a more direct and radical nationalist stance — resisting the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance, wiping out the KMT politically, ending the ROC’s colonialism, and upholding social justice issues. The GPT and the WRP obviously intend to compete for the progressive, Taiwanese nationalist-oriented, and ideologically radical voters who are conventionally regarded as firm supporters of the pan-green camp. In addition, Restoration of Taiwan Social Justice (台左維新), which was established after the Sunflower Movement by young activists, has cooperated with preexisting pro-independence groups to form the Taiwan Independence Alliance (台灣獨立建國選舉連線). At least 67 candidates for city councilor have joined this alliance, including 42 DPP, 16 TSU, 1 GPT, and 7 independent candidates, and one candidate from another party. Their ten-point common guidelines are all nationalist claims that are beyond limits of the functions and powers of municipal councilors. If candidates can gain more votes by joining this alliance, these votes will necessarily be transferred from other pan-green candidates. In addition, an unprecedented (more than 200) number of young candidates are standing for lizhang or cunzhang (village chief), campaigning in areas that have been dominated by KMT vote brokers for decades (around 50 are supported by the DPP, 20 by the TSU, and the remainder by other civic groups).

The Sunflower Movement set off a momentum among the younger generation to participate in politics in various ways. These social forces are independent from the DPP while also maintaining a relationship of “coopetition” with the party. Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who had enjoyed wide popularity among young voters as the DPP’s candidate in the 2012 presidential election and reassumed the chairmanship of the DPP after the Sunflower Movement, has attempted to co-opt the young activists into the party but achieved little. Nevertheless, the young activists have expressed undisguised hostility toward the KMT and the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance.

Benefiting greatly from the nationalist dealignment and the rise of young pro-Taiwanese nationalism forces, Ko has maintained a substantial lead over Lien in favorability ratings for several months. While many have ridiculed every move by Lien, nobody has dared to dismiss the powers that are aligned behind him. This is why, even as Lien trails badly in the polls, he still had a slight lead for several months when people were asked which candidate they expected would win the election.

Will the 2014 Taipei mayor election be a precursor to the 2016 presidential election? Two possible scenarios present themselves. In the first, civic groups such as the Taiwan Citizen Union (公民組合) — which has already announced it will nominate candidates in the 2016 parliamentary election — will nominate a candidate with experience, nation-wide visibility, a positive image, and tried and trusted ability to represent the “Opposition Alliance” in place of Tsai Ing-wen, the likely DPP presidential candidate, to run against the agent of the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance.

In the second scenario, regardless of Lien’s success or failure in this year’s election, the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance will assign an agent who is much more competitive than Lien in 2016 (no difficult feat here). This agent could be someone like Terry Gou (郭台銘), one of the richest Taiwanese capitalists who runs the largest electronics manufacturing operation in the world with factories mostly in China, or some such type. If it is the case, KMT heavyweights interested in a presidential run such as Wang Jin-pyng, Eric Li-luan Chu (朱立倫), Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) and Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺), will be unable to defeat a hypothesized rival like Gou to become the KMT’s candidate unless one of them succeeds in becoming the agent favored by the CCP. They will become the next Ting Shou-chung: defeated by the CCP-favored agent for the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance.

If both of these two scenarios occur, we can conclude that the realignment of nationalist competition has been completed. In this realigned nationalist competition, the two main parties in Taiwan, the KMT and the DPP, will have lost the leadership of their own camps. In the presidential election, the CCP-headed Red-Blue-Gold Alliance will line up against social forces led by groups from civil society that are resisting the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance. The KMT may retain a legislative majority, but with an increasing number of legislators who are beyond the KMT’s control and directly or indirectly loyal to the CCP. The DPP will face competition from candidates nominated by civic groups, which in the long run might lead to a repeat of early 20th Century British history when the Liberal Party was superseded by the Labour Party.

A Chinese version of this article is was published here on November 10.


Ek-hong Ljavakaw Sia is a Ph.D. candidate of Political Science Institute of Tübingen University and a research fellow of European Research Center of Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT). He is currently working on the topics of nationalism, church-state relations, and environmental governance. Contact:

2 Responses to “Nationalist Dealignment in 2014, Realignment in 2016?”

November 11, 2014 at 3:07 am, Michael Turton said:

A wonderful perspective.


November 25, 2014 at 10:03 pm, Echo Taiwan said:

Nice article, although I don’t see the Ko supporters, especially those young netters, show any sign of rejecting Lien based on the fear of the invation of China power. What in their minds mostly are housing pricing, job, future, etc, those things immediately affecting their lives. It’s probably more like a class fight than an ideology fight.

Taiwan Citizen Union (公民組合) might indeed nominate a candidate for 2016 presidency, but I don’t see how it will become the focus of new alignment. As of now, in TCU, there doesn’t seem to be a single figure capable of being on that national stage other than former DPP president 林義雄, who quit the DPP years ago. But 林義雄 has some personality issues that disqualifies him as a political leader. Spiritual leader at best, but not political.


Comments are welcome, but will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive language, personal attacks or self-promotion will not be published. We encourage healthy discussion and, above all, tolerance of other's views.