What you need to know
In 2016, the DPP swept into power promising social progressivism and economic rejuvenation. So why does it now look like the KMT's B team?
One of the reasons why the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost so heavily in Taiwan's local elections over the weekend was because it is no longer clear to voters what the DPP stood for, and could therefore have been a mismatch of expectations.
The DPP won in the 2016 presidential election on the basis that Taiwanese voters wanted to punish the Kuomintang (KMT) for being too closely aligned to China and threatening Taiwan's sovereignty. That much is clear. On that assumption, the DPP has stuck to the belief that it should never waver in its stance towards China, and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has never accepted the so-called "One China, One Taiwan 1992 Consensus." This in itself should not be too much of an issue, since most polls have shown support for Tsai on this issue.
However, while the assumption was that voters had voted for DPP because they wanted a more progressive approach to governance – what with Tsai advocating for same-sex marriage and the constant promise to increase the wages of Taiwan's youths – the problem is that it seemed that there was no follow through on the DPP's part.
The DPP veered towards a more conservative approach while alienating its support base left, right and center. These numerous policy missteps therefore engendered a lack of trust towards the DPP and resulted in its poor showing at last weekend's local elections.
The DPP might have started on the right foot on pension reform, with most polls showing support for it. The reform was not targeted at the DPP's support base anyway, as most of the older civil servants whom the pension reform affected were traditionally aligned to the KMT, as the protesters against the reforms showed.
One would expect that with this seeming win in their pocket, the DPP would go on to introduce other progressive policies to consolidate support. However, the DPP then perplexingly went on to introduce the one fixed day off and one flexible rest day policy, but later backtracked on it.
Workers didn't feel that they benefited from the policy, even though it was sold as existing to help the workers. Instead, the criticism was why the government had reduced the number of holidays as part of this policy's rollout, when the government should instead increase the number of days of leave that workers should be allowed to take, since Taiwan already has one of the lowest number of work breaks in the world.
Perhaps the mistake that the DPP made was that it slowly moved towards becoming another KMT while aligning itself with big businesses.
On same-sex marriage, the DPP even blocked efforts to amend Taiwan's civil code (or constitution) to legalize same-sex marriage. It is no wonder that support for the DPP kept going downhill as the DPP was seen as not being able to keep its promises.
Perhaps the mistake that the DPP made was that it slowly moved towards becoming another KMT while aligning itself with big businesses. When the DPP was willing to walk back on the one fixed day off and one flexible rest day policy due to pressure from big businesses, it was perhaps then the DPP took the most hit – it looked to many like the DPP is no different from the KMT at all. All the hopes that Taiwan's youths had put on the DPP seemed dashed at that point.
It was clear that the DPP had also decided to pander to the older conservative faction of its party by taking a backseat on same-sex marriage. But yet, on the the issue of independence, which its older supporters are in favor of, the DPP then also started to distance itself from them. When an independence protest was held just prior to the elections, the DPP decided not to take part and held its own as a counter to the protest.
The DPP's missteps managed to distance the party from almost all its core segments of voters. To the people who had helped DPP gain power in 2016, it seemed that the DPP has decided to walk away from each of them – from the youths (wages), progressives (same-sex marriage) and independence advocates. in turn, the DPP embraced conservative policies.
But the DPP likely miscalculated. It is a silly move to side predominantly with the conservatives, as the conservative domain has traditionally been the KMT stronghold, so the DPP was threading into an area that was already taken by the KMT, and ironically leaving its traditional supporters behind. As such, the DPP rendered itself irrelevant.
What was the DPP thinking? Was it hoping to win over the KMT's supporters by marginalizing its own?
In fact, the DPP squeezed itself into a corner when it decided to align with the conservatives but could no longer advocate effectively on most progressive issues, and therefore became silent in areas where it should been vocal. Meanwhile, the KMT took possession of conservative causes, such as anti-marriage equality, and campaigned loudly on them. The progressive causes therefore lost one of their major backers and could only rely on smaller parties for support, whose voices were not strong enough to make a significant impact.
What most probably happened could have been that the DPP and Tsai allowed themselves to be held hostage by the conservative and older faction within the party and decided to rein in their progressive impulses, but if so and in so doing, the DPP became KMT Team B.
But there was really no need for a KMT Team B. The Taiwanese voted out KMT in 2016 for a fresh start, and if they wanted KMT to be in power, they could just vote for KMT. Essentially, over the last two years, the DPP's focus became disparate and it lost its way. Could having full control for the first time cause the DPP to fear and therefore stuck to what it knew from the past, or even to try to emulate the KMT to some extent is anyone's guess.
It is perhaps no wonder that during the local elections on Saturday, voters were willing to go back to voting for the KMT. There was nothing else to lose anyway. If the DPP was not seen as helping workers, some of the youths might have thought that there was no harm in letting the KMT be closer to China, if it meant Taiwan's youths could at least benefit from higher-paying jobs in Chinese cities across the Strait.
But it was not so much that the Taiwanese supported the KMT. Instead, if the DPP was going to be the same old party going against the wishes of its support base, voters thought that they could go against the DPP too, and many of them did. Pity then the other parties were still relatively small and could not adequately absorb the voters who decided to switch camps.
It should be noted that while the DPP has talked about introducing minimum wage legislation, there has been no action on this in its two years in government.
But Taiwan seems to be threading a very fine line here. On the one hand, Taiwan's youths want to benefit economically from China, but on the other hand, they do not want to lose their sovereignty in doing so. Or perhaps, the youths are divided among those who want to protect Taiwan's sovereignty and those who want to seek out job opportunities in China. On the referendum to decide if Taiwan should be represented by the same of "Taiwan" instead of "Chinese Taipei", the votes were nearly evenly split, anyway.
In the end, Taiwan's youths are caught up in part of a larger struggle perpetuated by China where they identify as Taiwanese but are forced to live in a cognitive dissonance in order to move to China to find higher-paying jobs. It is not an easy balance to make.
At this point, the DPP needs to make up its mind as to where it stands. Tsai has decided to step down as chairperson of the DPP, but she will still continue as president. After the election setback, she has also called for the youths within her party to be given more decision-making roles within the party. However, if the new chairperson decides to move the DPP to become even more conservative, this can potentially further alienate voters from the DPP.
With only 14 months left before the next presidential election, however, if the DPP decides to be more overtly progressive, there might not be enough time to see their plans through. This could risk unsettling the Taiwanese, who have just undergone a very divisive election in which "fake news" was used to amplify their fears.
Still, the DPP need not make any major moves. It must be calculated in convincing voters that it is willing to stand up for the values that they were voted in to represent. The DPP should identify one or two key progressive issues to work on for the next 14 months.
The number one issue on the agenda has be to let the youths know that the DPP will work in their interests, and not just by "saying" it will, but by actually doing something. The DPP needs to let young people feel that they are able to get more opportunities in Taiwan, and earn higher wages.
On wages, the DPP has ensured that government workers would earn a monthly minimum wage of NT$30,000 (US$971), but private-sector workers still earn only NT$22,000 (US$712) in 2018. Thus, even though Taiwan's average wages have been rising over the past few months, it would seem to the average Taiwanese that such increases do not benefit them. It might do well for the DPP to therefore take a two-pronged approach to increase minimum wages across the board via higher legislated increases than in the past, and to strengthen the power of labor unions to support the DPP in its negotiations with the businesses.
It should be noted that while the DPP has talked about introducing minimum wage legislation, there has been no action on this in its two years in government. Also, the DPP has been increasing the minimum wage by about 5 percent every year for the last two years. Instead of such conservative increases which can very easily allow businesses to raise prices to circumvent the increases, the DPP has to increase minimum wage by even more, by even up to 8 percent or 10 percent. South Korea has gone for 16.4 percent this year, though it might be argued that that's too high as unemployment issues have come with the high increase.
Additionally, the government should also improve work conditions by increasing the number of days of breaks that workers should have, which will also aid in increasing demand for workers, even as wages increase.
With 14 months left before the presidential elections, the DPP has to be targeted in its approach so as to win back the voters which brought it into power in 2016, and convince the Taiwanese that the DPP can still be relevant and protect Taiwan's democratic growth. However, 14 months is a tight timeline, and the DPP has already squandered away more than two years by trying to do too many things in a non-targeted manner. Now, it has to make up for lost time.
During Saturday's local elections, another issue was how voters had used the elections to punish the DPP. But such behavior need not be seen as critical of how Taiwanese voters act. Such voting behavior is common in two-party systems such as the United States.
However, the situation in Taiwan is perhaps more urgent for the Taiwanese as wages have been so low and depressed for decades that voters have lost patience in waiting. This impatience has caused them to use their votes in what they think is a strategic manner to try to press the different parties to work for them. Such impatience also means that they are even willing to punish the DPP after less than one term, and not be bothered to wait until two terms are over. I am not quite sure if this is a smart move since any move towards the KMT risks Taiwan being closer to China, and look what that did to Hong Kong's autonomy.
As such, the DPP's uncertainty in its positioning can therefore also be a risk to Taiwan's democracy, if it is unable to retain power and protect Taiwan's democratic values. Therefore, putting wages as central to the current government's goal is also central to safeguarding the DPP's power as well as Taiwan's democracy.
The other issue on voting behavior is that, based on my conversations with other Taiwanese friends, after decades of not having a clear national identity, Taiwanese have developed insecurities about their own identities and their place in the world. This did not help in how they voted during this election. These insecurities are what some believe had caused some voters to turn back to the KMT.
Instead of taking risks and voting for third parties like the New Power Party and Social Democratic Party, many voters turned instead to KMT even though these same voters had rejected the KMT in 2016. As such, the view is that the Taiwanese might have developed an unhealthy insecurity that prevents them from trying out new parties, and thereby preventing Taiwan from transitioning into a multi-party state.
I wish I could tell the Taiwanese that Taiwan is already an independent state. That just because it is not recognized internationally, it is not a lesser entity than other countries. I wish I could tell them to be confident enough, and to take risks to make Taiwan the progressive country they want it to be.
This, eventually, could also be the task faced by the DPP. Even as the DPP should know that it should adopt more progressive approaches to transform Taiwan, it could be held back by the insecurities and fear of risk that the Taiwanese have, as well as its own own fears and insecurities. Maybe this has prevented the DPP and Tsai to be bolder in their approach. The DPP therefore has to take strong-willed leadership if it wants to be truly progressive.
It is moreover the case that voters had voted for the DPP in 2016 because they believed that the DPP could bring about change, and the DPP did come onboard with that air of hope and energy. No doubt the DPP has lost much of that fervor, but it might be time for the DPP to bring it back, to pursue the much needed progressive reforms that it was known for, or that voters had of them.
It anything, there is nothing to lose for the DPP. If it does not pursue progressive policies over the next 14 months, it will undoubtedly lose the presidency. But if the DPP decides to pursue targeted progressive policies, there is at least a chance that it could retain the presidency.
Perhaps now is the time for the DPP to be quite clear about what it stands for, how it should differentiate its positioning from the KMT, and to rebrand itself once again to gain the trust of the Taiwanese and to ward of China's attempt at crippling Taiwan's democracy during the next presidential election. On that point, the DPP knew that China was going to use "fake news" to attack Taiwan during Saturday's local elections, so to see Taiwan so unprepared in dealing with it is a surprise. The government could have come out with a better strategy to handle it beforehand, such as responding to fake news immediately, in huge numbers.
The DPP has already squandered away more than two years by trying to do too many things in a non-targeted manner. Now, it has to make up for lost time.
The other unfortunate issue was that referendums were held alongside the local elections. To some extent, the Taiwanese had tied the referendums to their displeasure with the DPP and their votes had somewhat reflected that.
It is known that in the United States' two-party system, which is similar to Taiwan's, voters on the fence tend to swing from being more conservative to being more liberal at each election, based on the prevailing climate. A preceding conservative government would likely tend voters towards being more liberal at the next election cycle, and vice versa.
Such could be the case where because voters were in the mood to punish the DPP by turning more conservative, that the referendums were therefore also carried along in the same direction by the wave of discontent. Indeed, even though past surveys had shown the Taiwanese to be evenly split on same-sex marriage, support was still slightly higher for same-sex marriage, with the survey by the Ministry of Justice of over 310,000 people showing 71 percent support.
Thus the seeming about turn is somewhat a surprise – other than the campaign ran on falsehoods by the anti-gay groups, it would not be far-fetched to surmise that the rights of Taiwan's citizens have also been sacrificed as a protest vote against the DPP's performance, which is unfortunate.
If the referendum was not held in conjunction with the elections or when progressive ideals are on the uptick, such as in 2016, same-sex marriage could actually have passed by a slim margin. The majority of the Taiwanese do not seem to have a firm stance on the issue, and it should also be noted that the questions asked by the anti-gay groups were biased to generate a negative response towards LGBT groups. It is therefore very unfortunate that the rights of a segment of Taiwan's population have been denied on a campaign based on lies and an upswing of conservatism.
Moving forward, it is hoped that the fear and insecurities that have shaped the Taiwanese' votes would not also grip the DPP, which otherwise the next 14 months would go to waste. If the DPP could turn the situation around, be bolder and go back to their roots, there is yet hope that the DPP can retain the presidency at the next election.
Basically, the DPP should just stick to what it stood for, and should stand for now – to be a democratic, progressive party.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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