VOTE 2016: Optimism Wins in Taiwan

The outcome of Saturday’s elections is directly linked to the Sunflower Movement and the emergence of youth involvement in national politics
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Don Rodgers

intentAfter spending about two weeks in Taiwan with a group of my students from Austin College in the U.S., and after spending the evening as a participant-observer of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) victory rally in Taipei, I am finally ready to put down some of my thoughts about this year’s election. I might regret writing this so closely on the heels of the vote, but I want to comment while some of these thoughts are fresh in my mind. The DPP won an impressive victory in the Jan. 16 elections. Not only did Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) win in a landslide, the DPP obtained a clear majority in the Legislative Yuan for the first time in Taiwan’s democratic history. What helps us understand this outcome?

Sunflowers, Sunflowers, Sunflowers

We have attended more than a dozen meetings and briefings about the elections and current events with a wide range of people including college professors and students, representatives of many of the parties, government officials, and even Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) himself. In every meeting we heard about the Sunflowers. The phrases, “in the post-Sunflower era,” and “since the Sunflower protests,” were as ubiquitous as the phrase “in the post-9/11 world” in international relations.

The Sunflower protests were both a signal of, and a catalyst for, significant change in Taiwan’s political environment. The young generation started several years ago to express their frustration with the social, economic, and political situation in Taiwan. The occupation of the Legislative Yuan was the most dramatic of their protests, but leading up to and since that event they have been protesting the government’s poor handling of social and economic inequality, media freedom, land rights, energy policy, and government transparency. The Sunflower occupation of the legislature focused on the “black-box” handling of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), but was actually about much more than that. The absolute frustration with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government exploded during those weeks in March and April of 2014, but the causes of the frustration were not resolved.

In addition to helping to block the CSSTA, the Sunflower protests energized the people of Taiwan and people in the overseas Taiwanese community. The protests help to redefine the meaning of democracy in Taiwan. Democracy is not simply defined by the act of voting and passively watching the government’s work, but rather by a continuing process of attention and voice. Up until then, people seemed to feel powerless, hopeless in the face of tremendous KMT power and resources. Finally, it seemed that it was possible to stand up to the KMT and the KMT government and to push back against its tactics and policies (it is fair to note that the student activists were also very frustrated with the DPP). People started to feel some sense of optimism that things could get better and they started to act on that belief.

Tsai was able to seize on this newfound optimism and to build her campaign on the idea of a brighter future. Her campaign slogan was 點亮台灣 (somewhat awkwardly translated into English as “Light up Taiwan” when I though something like “illuminate Taiwan” would have worked better. But the Taiwanese voters cared little about the English translation and she won in a landslide, so why bicker?). The slogan has many meanings, but central is the idea that Taiwan has tremendous assets and that the people of Taiwan can work together to improve their lives and to strengthen Taiwan’s place in the international community. This is a message built on a belief in human agency, in the agency of the people of Taiwan to make a difference. This message was in stark contrast to both the message and the behavior of the KMT government over the past eight years.

It’s Not All About China

OK, we can’t deny that China matters in Taiwan’s politics. Everybody is constantly reminded about that. But some foreign media, policy makers, and scholars seem to think that it’s all about China. It is not. In fact, one sharp contrast between the KMT and the DPP is the difference in their attitude about Taiwan’s relationship with China. No, I don’t mean the question about whether there is “one China” and Taiwan is part of that “one China.” I mean the question of whether Taiwan can survive and prosper without dependence on China. Here is where the KMT’s pessimism versus the DPP’s optimism becomes most apparent.

In 2010 I conducted a survey of college students across Taiwan. When asked to respond to the following statement, “Without China, Taiwan has no future,” only 2.8% of the students responded, “Strongly agree,” and only 4.1% responded with “Agree.” When posing that question I had unwittingly asked the students to comment on the KMT’s political platform. Over the almost eight years of the Ma administration the KMT has repeatedly pushed the idea that closer ties to China are Taiwan’s only path to survival. Slow economy? Trade more with China. Lack of international recognition? Play nice with China so that they will be more accommodating. Inequality? Expensive housing? Trade more with China.

In short, the KMT government basically asked the people of Taiwan to swallow their pride and to passively allow expanded ties with Mother China to solve their problems and improve their quality of life. China ties were offered as a panacea for all of Taiwan’s problems. The Ma government failed to take direct action on most domestic social and economic problems, instead trying to convince the people that the China ties would solve everything. We now know that the KMT’s policies failed to deliver the benefits promised. In fact, things got worse. The economy is stagnating, Taiwan has no greater space in the international community, and people have less trust in their government because of the lack of transparency in policy making.

The KMT’s message is pessimistic and denies the people of Taiwan the agency to improve their lives. The DPP’s new message is much more optimistic and truly resonates with younger voters. It tells the people that Taiwan has much to be proud of and that working together the people of Taiwan can create a more prosperous and just society and can have greater influence across the globe. The difference in these messages was apparent leading up to the elections. The KMT continued to harp on the tremendous improvements in cross-Strait relations and the benefits that will bring Taiwan, while the DPP talked about new ideas, innovation, creativity, and change.

The DPP learned something from the Sunflowers. It learned that the youth are a powerful force that believes they can make a difference, and that the Taiwanese citizens can be energized to make a difference. The DPP obviously did a good job of tapping into the young voters, and into the rest of the population energized by the Sunflowers. Now its challenge will be to build on the energy and optimism of the campaign and to find ways to turn that energy into real policy and real political reform as promised.

The DPP will also be incessantly bombarded with questions and pressures related to its China policy. Contrary to what one might read in some media reports, the DPP and its supporters have no desire to actively antagonize China (although China is perfectly willing to antagonize Taiwan and the DPP). They simply do not believe that the people of Taiwan should look exclusively to China to improve Taiwan’s quality of life. It is fine to trade with China, to do business in China, and even to welcome Chinese tourists. But first, this is not the only policy the government of Taiwan should pursue, and second, the government should never sacrifice the dignity of the people of Taiwan by putting them in the position of being or even appearing completely dependent on China. As shown in the survey question above, the people of Taiwan simply do not believe that their entire destiny rests in China ties. They believe they have the capacity and the agency to improve their lives. They passionately and convincingly expressed that belief in the voting booth today.

The KMT seemed to learn nothing from the Sunflowers and is now in deep trouble. Over the past eight years the party has been unwilling to listen to the voices of the people. The further its approval ratings dropped, the more the KMT government emphasized the importance of ever expanding China ties. Each time they took one step closer to China, their approval ratings dropped more. No matter how low the approval ratings dropped, the KMT refused to acknowledge that perhaps its policies were not popular. Each time they were pushed on this issue the common response was, “we are simply not communicating our ideas clearly,” or “the people simply do not understand what we are trying to accomplish.”

For the KMT to recover from the beating it received today, and in 2014, it will have to change.   It must first acknowledge that its policies are neither popular nor effective. It is seen as a bloated, elitist, and out of touch party that only strives to serve its own interests. If it hopes to hold onto some of its traditional strength, or perhaps even to survive, it will need to find a way to adapt to the new (post-Sunflower) political environment. This will not be an easy task for the current leadership in the party, who would be well advised to work toward a substantive, not symbolic, infusion of youth and new ideas. The excitement of the election is over, now both parties have tough work ahead.


Donald Rodgers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Austin College.

3 Responses to “VOTE 2016: Optimism Wins in Taiwan”

January 17, 2016 at 1:08 pm, Mike Fagan said:

Yes: agency. Members of the KMT, or at least the light blues, might be well advised to refocus their party along more radical lines that would draw a sharp contrast with both the pan-greens and with the administration of the previous eight years.

They should focus on strengthening the rights of individuals against the State and against various constructions of “community” that play out within the pan-green field. That means strengthened private property rights through the repeal or amendment of existing legislation. Where the old KMT could find no objection at all to the legalized theft of people’s property in Taipei and Miaoli and where the DPP is positioned to allow such expropriations to continue on condition of community involvement, a new KMT would stand to outlaw the practice and defend the rights of individuals.

They should also attempt to overhaul the criminal justice system. Whilst the old KMT was in favour of all manner of draconian laws, and the DPP will perhaps attempt to partially decriminalize things like cannabis use, a new KMT could outflank everyone by replacing all but a few areas of criminal law with civil law. Legally speaking crimes would no longer be acts committed against the State, but against particular victims whose rights entitle them to redress through the courts. That would instantly put a stop to victimless crimes such as young people smoking pot in Kenting, or men paying for sex with prostitutes. It would also mean that decisions as to whether to prosecute would be left with actual victims rather than State actors prone to abuse of power. So again, a new KMT could position itself as the party of individual rights and and a disciplined, careful State.

They should also seek to overhaul the military by actually carrying out the reforms president Ma promised but did not deliver on; switching to an all-volunteer force and making the corollary improvements that requires. The military also needs financing properly, which could be accomplished by altering budget priorities rather than by messing about with tax rates. Education is the single largest item in the government’s budget; there is an enormous amount of waste here and this could be cut with the funds redirected to military reform (the new submarine program in particular isn’t going to come cheap). Where the old KMT dragged its’ heals on military reform, and while the DPP will probably attempt to finance military reform with tax rises and greater debt, a new KMT could paint themselves as the party of responsible national defense – replacing the frivolous areas of higher education with advanced military hardware.

They should also turn their attention to the Ministry of Education – and abolish it, or at least significantly curtail its’ powers and responsibilities by introducing new legislation to allow freedom in education. Schools should be free from the demands of a national syllabus and examination system, and parents should be free to homeschool their children absent the diktats of the Ministry of Education. Whilst the old KMT was correctly perceived as the party of State-indoctrination, and the DPP will likely take over this role but be partially shielded from criticism by a compliant media, the new KMT could outflank its’ rivals by positioning itself as the party of freedom in education. This approach could also be extended to encouraging the privatization of schools, colleges and universities and reducing the education budget to spend the money better elsewhere.

They should also pay attention to the green lobby and outflank the DPP by breaking up the Taipower monopoly. Leave Taipower in charge of the national grid, and privatize power generation. Done fairly, and without a byzantine labyrinth of subsidies, anybody will be free to invest their own money in whichever source of power generation they like and get whatever return they can on it. One obvious benefit is that the extent of our reliance on renewable sources of power generation will probably remain sensible until superior storage technologies come to market.

Yesterday’s electoral results, with the DPP achieving a majority in the legislature, mean that there is a great danger that the opposition will be weak and unable to effectively oppose legislation introduced by the DPP. That is important because the DPP are likely to make mistakes – as we all are. This time, however, could be used by the KMT to reassess their position and ideology and attempt to contest the elections next time, or in eight years time. It would be a great disappointment if they were to attempt to return to power by simply changing a few faces and a few policy details and then waiting for the DPP to make a mess of things.


January 21, 2016 at 11:40 am, bbarnavi said:

I think it’s been proven quite handily that neoliberal empowerment of corporate agendas under the guise of “individual rights” has been a massive failure in TW. Thanks, but no thanks.


January 21, 2016 at 1:09 pm, Mike Fagan said:

So… when Chu Fen had her farmland stolen by the Miaoli County government in 2010, that was an example of individual rights? And when the Wang family had their family home in Taipei stolen from them in 2012, that also was just them exercising their individual rights? And when the people in Dapu, Miaoli and the Huaguang community in Taipei had their properties stolen from them and raized in 2013 that too was just them exercising their individual rights?

OK then. Thank you for that explanatory insight.


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