OPINION: Independence Referendum Push Challenges DPP Complacency

OPINION: Independence Referendum Push Challenges DPP Complacency
Photo Credit: 時代力量黨團

What you need to know

The backing of political heavyweights and unprecedented third-force unity threaten to undermine the DPP.

The declaration by Taiwan's "third force" parties – backed by former presidents Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and other influential figures – that they intend to seek a referendum on Taiwanese independence poses a significant challenge to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

With this move, the third force has more or less declared its intent to seize the mantle of traditional pro-independence positions advocated by the DPP.

Notably, most of the third force parties which emerged from the Sunflower Movement endorsed the March 1 formation of The Island of Joy and Happiness Coalition (喜樂島聯盟). The New Power Party (NPP), Social Democratic Party (SDP), Radical Wings Party and Free Taiwan Party all signed the declaration, as well as the Taiwan Solidarity Union. This is a rare event – despite agreeing on many key issues, third force parties have been internally divided in the past.

The fact that these Taiwanese independence elders intend to work with third force parties in support of an independence referendum undercuts the DPP.

At times this has been due to grudges between third force leaders, some of which go back to the Sunflower Movement, the Wild Lily Movement in 1990 or even earlier. At other times, this is because third force parties find themselves contesting the same positions during elections. This was a source of conflict during 2016 elections, when the SDP chose to endorse DPP legislative speaker Ker Chien-Ming (柯建銘) over the NPP’s candidate, Handy Chiu (邱顯智), in spite of Ker being widely unpopular in Taiwanese civil society.

Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
Some third force grudges go back to the 2014 Sunflower Movement.

In upcoming 2018 elections, the NPP plans to run candidates in electoral districts even if this means that its candidates may conflict with other third force candidates, something that has led to controversies with the Radical Wings Party, among others.

Yet all third force parties signed this declaration, demonstrating that they have increasingly drifted towards open advocacy of Taiwanese independence.

During 2016 elections, the SDP focused primarily on leveraging its platform calling for social democratic policy-making over pushing for independence, claiming that independence/unification politics had dominated for too long and that it was time to move beyond that. Nor did the NPP openly advocate Taiwanese independence, despite being perceived as a pro-independence party. But the NPP and SDP alike have been increasingly open about advocacy for independence in the two years since the 2016 elections.

It should be noted that elders of the Taiwanese independence movement such as Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian, and former DPP presidential candidate Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) have long probed the third force to determine if they should throw their weight behind it. Activists and media have long speculated that third force parties, in particular the NPP, may receive substantial financial backing from these elders of Taiwanese independence. The NPP also received the endorsement of Peng Ming-min back in 2015.

The fact that these Taiwanese independence elders intend to work with third force parties in support of an independence referendum undercuts the DPP. Since taking power in 2016 legislative and presidential elections, the DPP has become increasingly conservative on social policy and backed away from open advocacy of independence. In this way, if Taiwanese politics cleaves along the two poles of left versus right and independence versus unification, the DPP is moving increasingly towards the center, whereas it was traditionally a party that advocated progressive policies and a pro-independence platform.

The DPP has been criticized for increasing conservatism on a number of matters, such as backing away from its support for gay marriage, restarting nuclear power plants despite campaigning on an anti-nuclear platform or passing controversial changes to the Labor Standards Act (LSA) seen as undoing 30 years of labor reforms in Taiwan. With its increasing conservatism, it should not be surprising that the DPP abandoned support for an independence referendum. While changes to the Referendum Act were passed which lowered the benchmarks needed to hold a referendum, these changes also specified that a referendum could not be held on the issue of Taiwanese sovereignty.

Photo Credit: Shih-Shiuan Kao@Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Action on same-sex marriage legislation has stalled since the DPP came to power.

Despite their mostly youthful composition, the third force parties in many ways resemble earlier party compositions of the pan-Green camp, in upholding the progressive and pro-independence platform that the DPP has abandoned. As such, pushing for an independence referendum is in many ways a move to steal away traditional voters from the DPP. That is, individuals who adhere more closely to the past political positions of the DPP than the DPP’s positions at present.

This is also likely why third force parties have called for referendums on not only the issue of independence, but other key issues in which the DPP has apparently reversed, such as nuclear power and changes to the LSA.

It is another question altogether whether any of these pushes for referendum will be successful. It is even possible that they will backfire. A recent recall vote was organized by anti-gay groups against NPP chair Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) for his support of gay marriage and there are plans to hold a referendum to undo the Council of Grand Justice’s decision on gay marriage – these show how of lowering the benchmarks for referendum could, in fact, be dangerous.

It is a mistake to believe that because they are primarily composed of youth activists and emerged from a social movement, third force parties are politically irrational in their behavior. If a campaign to hold an independence referendum fails, this will merely add to the long list of failed campaigns to push for independence referendums in Taiwan — most of which were organized by the DPP in the past. On the other hand, organizing such a referendum will provide a valuable opportunity for the third force to try and steal the DPP’s traditional voter base.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original post was published on New Bloom here.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston