VOTE 2016: Not a Time for Scorched-Earth Politics

Under no circumstances should the DPP and its allies fight in the dirt with the ultraconservatives who have hijacked the KMT
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
J. Michael Cole

With five months to go before the elections, the presidential campaign is unfortunately starting to resemble the Taipei mayoral race in Nov. 29 elections last year, in which one side engaged in outlandish fabrications against its opponent and turned the entire exercise into a silly back-and-forth of mudslinging and necessary denials. The tactic failed, and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lost the capital to a political neophyte — an independent, of all things. Sadly for Taiwan’s democracy, the ruling party appears to have decided to use a similar strategy for 2016, except this time the stakes are much higher. And it does so at a time when the nation should be striving for unity rather than division.

It’s the same formula all over again: KMT makes baseless allegation against its opponent; media dutifully report said allegation; opponent issues denial; KMT accuses opponent of smearing its candidate and makes new allegation, ad nauseam…While this goes on, all sides fail to discuss their policies. As a consequence, the public remains in the dark and the election turns into a popularity contest rather than an arena in which the candidate with the best policies is voted into office.

Back in November, the allegations against Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) ranged from the claim that he had engaged in organ harvesting to accusations that he mistreated his staff at NTU hospital, that he was a “Japanese colonial subject” and a “closet separatist.” For its efforts denying the claims, the Ko camp was rewarded with accusations that it had launched the “worst slander campaign in the nation’s history” against the KMT’s Sean Lien (連勝文).

In the current campaign, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) finds herself in a similar situation: a comfortable early lead in the polls and an opponent that cannot overcome the urge to dirty up the campaign. This time around, the allegations against her include the claim that she has been sponsoring mobs of “extremists” and that she is Taiwan’s version of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the murderous Islamic State that has been ravaging large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Tsai also stands accused of financing and controlling an impressive constellation of organizations (this web site included) that are allegedly tasked with spreading rumors and propaganda against her opponent (see accompanying graphic). Among them are PTT Board, the Sunflower Movement, SET TV (三立) — even Citizen 1985 (公民1985), despite the fact that on National Day two years ago the organizers of the movement made it a point to raise the KMT and DPP flags at the same height to symbolize their equal responsibility in failing to meet the demands and expectations of society (one is also at pains to explain why or how Ms. Tsai would have funded many of the future Sunflowers who protested against the government when Chen Shui-bian was in office over issues like the Losheng Sanatorium).

All of this is silly — desperate, even. However, besides being detrimental to Taiwan’s democracy (when will the candidates start talking policy?) and poisoning the well of Taiwanese politics, this device ensures that the nation remains divided. Dirt tactics play right into Beijing’s hands, which above everything fears a united Taiwan. What’s even worse is that the mudslinging flies in the face of growing popular demands for an end to this kind of divisiveness, a call that has been incarnated most vocally by the very same youth-led civil society that the KMT has worked so hard to discredit.

The remark may be apocryphal, but Vladimir Lenin reportedly once said that the more one’s opponent arms himself with virtue, the more one must make him fight in the dirt. Then you have him…

Still, the DPP, its friends in other parties and the more moderate voices within the KMT should do their utmost to keep the campaign civil and, above all, constructive. At this juncture, Taiwan cannot afford to descend into yet another cycle whose sole purpose is to keep it divided within itself. Not when we do not know how an increasingly assertive Beijing will react to a likely DPP victory in January. Not after the Chinese feel that all their “goodwill” didn’t earn them the love they expected in return.

There is hope. The growing discontent within the KMT, which led to the recent expulsion of five members and the rapid erosion of the party’s local pillars — key to the party’s ability to continue winning elections after democratization — is a sign of agreement within Taiwanese society, including the blue camp, that certain lines cannot be crossed no matter the price. The KMT appears to have been hijacked by a group of ultraconservatives who are out of touch with the times and whose presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), threatens to cross over the very lines that sparked alienation among its members.

Hung’s KMT is not the KMT that should have emerged in the wake of the Sunflower Movement and Nov. 29. It’s an aberration. Fighting in the dirt with it would be a grievous mistake.

If the embattled ultraconservatives in the KMT want to keep the campaign dirty, there probably is no way to dissuade them. Be that as it may, the rest of society should take the moral high ground and find every opportunity to work together, and thereby avoid deepening the divisions that benefit nobody but Beijing.

The DPP and its supporters should avoid the Lenin trap. They mustn’t fight in the dirt; they must instead focus on unveiling and explaining their policies while striving to form alliances with other political parties and within society. Moreover, Tsai should seek every opportunity to debate Ms. Hung on the battlefield of ideas, as she wisely did in a TVBS segment aired on Saturday night. For better or worse, Ms. Hung is the KMT candidate, and consequently she should be treated with respect and as an equal always, no matter how dim her prospects at the polls might be at the moment.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

5 Responses to “VOTE 2016: Not a Time for Scorched-Earth Politics”

August 17, 2015 at 9:29 am, Ben Goren said:

My only question here would be what kind of national unity is the author looking for and at what point and to what extent would that unity actually be detrimental to democracy and represent a reduction of choice for voters? I do agree that smear campaigns and charisma based politics benefit no-one and I too would like to see policy substance but I fear that the current 24/7 infotainment media environment makes a policy-oriented election more and more unlikely as it simply is not exciting enough to keep people’s attention.


J. Michael Cole

August 17, 2015 at 9:39 am, J. Michael Cole said:

Listen to what the five KMT members who were expelled have been saying. That kind of unity. Or the local KMT pillars who are saying no to the high-school curriculum guidelines or to Hung’s China policy. Taiwan and its way of life as the baseline. That kind of unity.


August 17, 2015 at 12:45 pm, AR said:

Yes, the DPP should be wary – less they snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


August 22, 2015 at 10:51 am, Wendy said:

Why is the mellow 菜英文being compared to the leader of Isis?? And in the past, I never thought about who Id vote for and just blindly give my vote to whoever looked the most decent on paper. Because they never really carry out their promises anyway. And I had my mom telling me to vote for so and so because she hates the so and so party.


August 22, 2015 at 12:50 pm, Mike Fagan said:

“…besides being detrimental to Taiwan’s democracy (when will the candidates start talking policy?) and poisoning the well of Taiwanese politics, this device ensures that the nation remains divided. “

That’s just vague politicist jargon. The purpose of mud-slinging is surely either to try to reduce electoral turnout and thereby reduce the KMT’s expected electoral losses in the legislature, or simply to vent off some bad feelings. The nation will always remain “divided” so long as people are allowed to have different opinions.


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.