What you need to know
Politics abhors a vacuum, and with the KMT struggling for support there is scope for a new opposition to mount a challenge to the DPP's grip of Taiwan's national politics. But who will lead it and where will they come from? Courtney Donovan Smith forecasts Taiwan's political future.
In my previous article “As KMT Digs Its Own Grave, DPP Plans Its Burial,” I explored how the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is on the one hand marginalizing itself with its own structural, historical and ideological straightjackets, and on the other is having much of its remaining power sources held over from the martial law era stripped away by the current administration of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
The marginalization of the KMT will open a huge political vacuum for new opposition to form to the DPP. There is no way to know for sure what form it will take, but that has never stopped anyone attempting to read the tea leaves. Whatever political forces emerge from the status quo in Taiwan, they will arise from an intriguing confluence of local political structures and personalities, international trends and economic changes, and take place against a backdrop of a nation straining to break away from the deep historical divisions that have so far informed its identity.
The role of national identity
The one certainty of any significant new emerging political force is that it will have a pro-Taiwan identity. During Taiwan’s democratic transition politics were dominated by the “pan-green” Taiwanese identity forces and the “pan-blue” Chinese identity forces. The pan-blue forces, led by the KMT, had considerable money and power, plus goodwill at having given up their one-party state rule, and for the amazing economic transformation of the country in the 1970s and 1980s that brought widespread prosperity. Yet the KMT’s Republic of China government-in-exile that took over the ex-Japanese colony of Taiwan also had a tarnished history: decades of strict control of education and media, extending to restriction of personal freedoms and the stamping out of Taiwanese identity in favor of imprinting a Chinese one.
Democratization brought forth a flowering revival of Taiwanese identity. China’s aggressive actions towards Taiwan and increased exposure to Chinese brought clarity to the often stark differences between the cultures. This exploded onto the world stage in 2014, when Sunflower Movement protestors gathered to oppose the methods the KMT were using to ram through trade deals with China (it is incorrect to say the protests were anti-trade deals with China per se, the opaque and muscular way the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement was being pushed through being the unifying factor) brought forth an immense outpouring of pro-Taiwan sentiment. This marked the beginning of the collapse of the old pan-green/pan-blue political paradigm in local politics. Taiwanese citizens identifying solely as “Chinese” dropped to 3.5 percent, according to data from the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University. If the now-elderly Chinese who came over after the Chinese civil war with the KMT and the Chinese who married local citizens are removed, that suggests that pure Chinese identity amongst locally born Taiwanese is less than 1 percent. A minority identifies as both “Taiwanese” and “Chinese,” but those are generally descended from those who decamped to Taiwan with the KMT, or by the mostly older generation as a recognition of being of ethnically Chinese descent. This shift was powerfully demonstrated again in the DPP’s massive sweep of local elections in 2014, and in the presidential and legislative elections in 2016 that demonstrated a sea change in political power.
Another near certainty is that to be successful, any new political force will be explicitly geared towards transcending the old divisions that included ethnic and cultural elements. The two most successful political initiatives in recent years brought people together across these lines: the Sunflower Movement and the election of independent political novice Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) to the mayorship of Taipei City. In the past, the KMT and DPP used historical divides between the Hoklo (Fujianese) speaking Taiwanese who arrived over the past few hundred years and the families of those who were exiled to Taiwan after the Chinese civil war. The KMT also deftly used the historical animosities between the smaller minority of Hakka speakers and the indigenous population against the larger Hoklo-speaking majority. Transcending these divisions would be a major draw for any new political force, exposing the DPP’s weakness in relying so heavily on Hoklo speakers.
Left/right and the structure of Taiwan politics
While it is entirely possible that Taiwan could create a new paradigm different from other nations (which would be very exciting), there are structural reasons why it is more likely that Taiwan will move to a political divide similar to those found in most other democracies around the world: A left/right or conservative/liberal political divide. Currently, both the DPP and KMT are a mix of left and right, conservative and liberal – the unifying factor on both sides has been national identity.
Like other democracies, Taiwan has entrenched and new interest groups with money to spend and power to wield, including corporations, social activists, religious groups, pensioners and many more. They will put their support behind the party they best feel will represent their interests. In theory, this would lead to a plethora of interest-based parties.
Taiwan, however, is institutionally geared towards bigger parties. Parties that garner 5 percent or higher of the popular vote get significant subsidies from the government based on their percentage of the popular vote. Additionally, the legislature is made of up directly elected legislators on a first-past-the-post system, with party list legislators chosen by the parties and allocated to represent their proportion of the popular vote on a second ballot. This gives tremendous power to the parties themselves, especially larger ones. Currently, the legislature has two parties that dominate, and two smaller ones that are each allied to the two bigger players.
This structure means that it is in the interests of donors and supporters to support the bigger, dominant parties. That means to grow, the parties need to appeal to broader swathes of the public and build alliances with different interest groups. As these alliances form, for similar reasons as in – and partly under the influence of – other countries, similar alliances are likely to form here. Labor and corporate concerns, for example, are likely to favor different parties. Similarly, social conservatives and social liberals are also likely to split on similar lines. There are interest groups and circumstances that are unique to Taiwan, but broadly speaking it is very easy to see alliances forming that generally resemble those in other democracies.
The short term
In the short term, especially in local elections coming up in 2018, the KMT will remain the biggest opposition party to the DPP. The KMT still has some politicians popular at the local level, and have a strong infrastructure to support them. Some areas, for historical and ethnic reasons, have been strongly in the KMT camp and opposed to the Hoklo-dominated DPP. Additionally, the identity issue isn’t as important on the local level. They may even make some gains, with the seventh-largest local administration, Changhua County, a possible pickup, and perhaps even a small chance at taking the second-largest city, Taichung. However, there is also a risk they may lose the only significant local government they managed to hold in the 2014 electoral disaster, the country’s biggest metropolitan area: New Taipei.
In the 2020 national polls, the KMT may still be a force to reckon with in the legislative elections due to strong local ties, but their flaws will keep them from being the mighty electoral force of yore. Usually the KMT chair is the presumptive presidential candidate, but their current chair Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) is not only relatively unpopular, his ideology is firmly stuck in the past – continuing to tout eventual unification with China and the so-called “1992 consensus” that China demands Taiwan espouse to continue direct talks. On the national level, the party currently has no candidates that are popular enough to run a serious challenge to the presidency. There is talk of running an outsider, such as the maverick owner of Hon Hai Precision Industry (known overseas as Foxconn) Terry Gou (郭台銘), a la Donald Trump. His strong ties to China are a big drawback. The other is his overt authoritarian thinking, which while potentially appealing overseas won’t work in Taiwan. Taiwanese, only recently having defeated authoritarianism after a long struggle, are fiercely proud of their democratic accomplishments.
The DPP’s conundrums
How the vacuum left by a much-weakened KMT is filled will be primarily determined by the future direction of the DPP. Currently, the party is trying to be all things to all people, but there is a marked shift towards the center-right. Most of the top leaders, including the president (an ex-trade negotiator), new premier William Lai (賴清德), Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍), among many others, are broadly speaking, center-right politicians. They are generally pro-business, and have made strong efforts to wean business groups away from the KMT and bring them into their camp. In spite of the party’s long history of supporting the formation of a Republic of Taiwan, in practice the party has become the party of huadu (華獨), or the stance that Taiwan is already an independent nation with the name “Republic of China” (as opposed to taidu (台獨), supporters of name rectification to Taiwan). This is a popular choice, as the majority of the public supports the “status quo” arrangement with China, due to China’s repeated threats of war should Taiwan rectify its name. While talking like a socially liberal party, in many ways it is not. DPP President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), for example, came out personally for marriage equality, but it was never an official DPP position. Once coming to power, her own political appointees and many of her party’s legislators tried to slow or stop progress on the issue, and the president herself ignored it until a tragic suicide mobilized public pressure. The reason is simple: Much of the base of the DPP comes from the socially conservative south and rural areas, and while many of the legislators chosen by the party from the party list were in favor, almost none of the popularly elected DPP legislators came out in support. The party was spared a bloody internal battle over the issue when the local equivalent of the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, but many other divisive issues remain.
So far the DPP has been able to keep those sources of tension from fracturing the party. Many hope their particular issues will be addressed in time, but problems will arise if they are left to fester. Moreover, as the KMT wanes, the unifying factor of opposition to the KMT will wilt as well. And, with more experience of power, different factions and groups with different agendas will grow increasingly ambitious.
The catalytic Sunflower Movement of 2014 caught the DPP off guard. It was led by a new generation that was open and clear about the fact that they didn’t trust the DPP. While supporters of that movement did vote for the DPP in 2014 and 2016, for many it was a vote against the KMT more than a ringing DPP endorsement. Sunflower supporters rapidly propelled a new party, the New Power Party (NPP) – led by some leaders of that and other social movements – to become the third-largest party in the legislature. Interestingly, they did well in areas previously held by the KMT. But they were aided by the DPP's strategic calculation to not run candidates in those districts – likely suspecting that a split NPP/DPP vote would have handed the districts off to the KMT.
From where will a new opposition come?
Of course, there is no way to know now for certain, but some possibilities present themselves. Unless the DPP undergoes a major internal shift back towards their left wing, it looks likely that the new opposition will form to the left of the party. What are the possibilities?
Could the KMT completely transform itself to the point it could win back the public? Not likely. The KMT’s name is normally translated as “Chinese Nationalist Party,” but another way to translate it is “China National Citizens Party.” The KMT was founded as a revolutionary party in China, tracing its roots back to the Qing Dynasty. To have the kind of electoral pull they once had, they would need to become a “Taiwan National Citizens Party,” or at least a “National Citizens Party.” The party is steeped in its own history, its Chinese-ness, and rendered inflexible by a combination of a powerful old guard and a Leninist party structure. They would need to jettison that history and tradition, as well as their name, party structure, hardcore base and most of their top leadership – a tall order to say the least. A sharp leftward lurch on the part of the DPP would give the KMT some breathing space to continue as a right-wing opposition, but that looks unlikely.
How about the New Power Party (NPP)? This young, energetic and idealistic party has strong support among younger and more left-wing elements of Taiwanese society, making them a natural left-of-DPP alternative. They are good at branding, social media and organization, especially given their background driving social activist movements. They also have some charismatic leaders. However, they are still fairly small and lack the big government subsidies of the bigger two parties. They mostly draw their financial backing from small donors. They are also still tied very closely to their ideals and roots, which puts them a bit outside mainstream political views. They also lack infrastructure to groom and support up-and-coming politicians. Lack of political experience is also a potential problem.
For the NPP to become the main opposition, they will need to poach the more left-wing members and supporters of the DPP, but they will have to do it very carefully and when the time is right. For now, they are still allied to the DPP, and in many places around the country an election featuring NPP, DPP and KMT candidates would threaten to split the non-KMT vote. They will need to wait until the KMT is weaker and the DPP starts to tear itself apart, then it could peel off experienced, left-wing elements from the DPP and significantly bolster their numbers. This will require a degree of finesse and excellent timing to be successful. It will also potentially cause problems with their more ideological base, to whom they are very close to on a personal level.
Another possibility is a DPP splinter party. The KMT spawned two major opposition parties that grew quite big and popular in a very short time, plus one smaller one of note: The New Party (NP), the People’s First Party (PFP) and the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU). The NP and TSU are now no longer in the legislature, and no longer have much pull, but the PFP still has a small handful of legislators remaining. However, that party is strongly tied to the popularity of their leader James Soong (宋楚瑜), who is 75 and – along with his party – has seen their influence erode since their heyday in the early 2000s. Now the DPP is the bigger party with internal factions that could easily split off due to internecine conflict. The issue that may cleave a wedge through the DPP remains to be seen, but some possibilities include liberal versus conservative social issues, left versus right economic issues or the long-standing tension between over the country’s name, flag and constitution.
How about a totally new force? When Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) won his election as an independent to the Taipei mayorship, he brought together people from both blue and green camps. He checked all the requisite boxes in being pro-Taiwan, and directly appealed to the idea of moving beyond old ethnic divides. If either him, or someone else like him, were to form a new political force that person would be able to draw existing politicians and supporters from both the DPP and KMT. Ko himself would be a good choice to lead such a movement, as he has already proven his electoral clout, is broadly popular and well known nationally, and has a reputation as a straight talker and a get-things-done kind of person. Aside from the current president, the prior three national leaders were catapulted to office by first serving as mayor of Taipei. In this scenario, he could either try to launch a new party, or one could spring up that allied itself to him. He hasn’t ruled out running for president in 2024. Ko is generally centrist, which could exacerbate the left/right divisions within the DPP, forcing them to jump one way or the other faster than they would like. While the DPP is currently tacking to the center-right, if Ko or a new force got considerable center-right support, that could force the DPP back to the left. Unlike a force centered around the ideological NPP, this new force would have the potential to steal experienced people from all major parties, quickly absorbing a wide range of talent and knowledge both locally and on a national level – and able to appeal to a wide swathe of the population.
We don’t know now how it will play out, but it will certainly be interesting and transformative. Indeed, several of the scenarios outlined here could play out simultaneously, making it even more absorbing to see which wins out. My call is for the last option, a new force appealing across current party lines, possibly centered around Ko. However, the NPP is growing in experience and has a very loyal base and, if they play their cards right, could win broader appeal. A DPP splinter party would also start with experience from the get-go and so could also have a pretty good shot at success. And, of course, with technology, cultural, social and economic changes accelerating around the world, new concepts and movements will appear that will change the nature and ideology of all the players.
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Editor: David Green