What you need to know
The DPP is in tatters and the referendum system needs repair, but democracy in Taiwan is rocking on.
As the dust settles on one of the most hard-fought election campaigns Taiwan has ever seen, supporters and party members of both the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are still coming to terms with the changing political landscape in Taiwan.
So too are those across the Taiwan Strait in Beijing, who have sought to influence the outcome of these elections and undermine democracy in Taiwan in the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.
But as everyday life in Taiwan returns to normal, what lessons have we learned from the 2018 elections and what effect will the events of the past few months have on the 2020 presidential election campaign?
1. DPP miscalculations and misjudgments
After sweeping into office with a landslide win in 2016, the DPP would have felt, perhaps understandably, that they had a mandate to enact the sweeping political they have long argued for. They set about their reforming efforts with gusto, but in doing so, they lost sight of the impact they would be having on real people. Their public sector pension reforms were fiscally necessary, but if the DPP believed they would only alienate people who already voted KMT, they got things badly wrong.
Retrospectively taking money out of people’s pockets is always going to be unpopular. When combined with a failure to communicate the economic necessity of the move, many people were left thinking it was little more than a cynical political move and went into these elections seeking revenge. Coupled with campaign complacency in solid DPP areas like Kaohsiung, these misjudgments and miscalculations have ultimately come back to haunt them.
With two years left in government, there is time for the DPP to win back these alienated voters. To do so, however, they will need to focus on enacting policies which deliver tangible improvements to the lives of Taiwanese people and begin to show some of the humility that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) promised in her victory speech two years ago.
2. The need for a third way
It would be easy to look at the election results across Taiwan and assume that there had been a huge surge in the popularity of the KMT. But actually, when you speak to many voters, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
Many people who voted for Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) in Kaohsiung saw him a candidate of change, a charismatic leader who offered them hope for a better future, and a stick with which to beat the unpopular DPP. Many were not voting for him as a KMT mayor, but as a non-DPP Mayor.
The surge in votes for the KMT can be attributed far more to a desire to punish the DPP for their failings than as an endorsement of the KMTs policy. For example, on the central issue of relations with China, which is often used to define Taiwan’s two main parties, a large majority still support the DPP’s position of maintaining the status quo and edging towards independence over the KMT’s desire for unification. But they still voted for the KMT in this election, because they were seen as the only credible alternative to the DPP.
This illustrates the clear need in Taiwan for a new political party which can bridge the divide between the two main parties and offer an alternative to the current partisan political scene. This desire can be clearly seen by Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) victory in Taipei. His campaign focused on what his policies had delivered for the people of Taipei. It outlined what new policies he would implement if re-elected. He did not spend any time criticizing or insulting his opponents. Many put his victory back in 2014 down to the endorsement of the DPP. But he won again this time around without that support, pushing DPP candidate Pasuya Yao (姚文智) into a distant and humiliating third place.
The people of Taiwan want and deserve a new, mature kind of politics. Ko Wen-je has shown it can be done. Now it is time the rest of Taiwan had the chance to vote for such a candidate too.
3. Referendum laws must be improved
Taiwan’s move towards direct democracy has been applauded throughout the world. The reforms to the laws on public referendums have proved popular with people of all political persuasions who have seen the changes as a chance to put their policy priorities to the public. But it was clear from their implementation in these elections, that there is still room for improvement.
Asking people to vote on no fewer than ten different referendums in addition to a number of local races made the process of voting unnecessarily complicated. It also made it extremely slow, with long queues building up at polling stations around the country. This is far from ideal and is likely to have put some off from casting their ballots.
Holding referendums on the same day as elections also risks people voting on issues without really considering them. It is clear that future referendums should take place on a separate day to political elections. Resources should also be put into the development of a secure online referendum voting system, which would allow referendums to take place at any time throughout the year without requiring people to physically head to a polling station.
The referendum questions also proved extremely complicated. There were three separate questions about equal marriage rights and three more about power generation. That is crazy. Amendments should be introduced to ensure that if multiple referendums on the same issue reach the threshold, a single question that can be put to the people is agreed.
4. External influences need reigning in
There has been much talk throughout the campaign about the role that external factors may have had in influencing the outcome of these elections. Some of the evidence is beyond reproach. The dissemination of a huge amount of fake news and disinformation on social media and other online platforms has been proven. While the influence this had on people’s voting intentions is less clear-cut, it is inconceivable that it has not played a role in swaying the views of at least some voters.
Evidence of Chinese financial backing for pro-Beijing candidates is also pretty clear-cut, according to Taiwan's Investigation Bureau and DPP legislators. Again, it is hard to prove that this had a direct outcome on results. Unlike in the United States, in Taiwan, there is no clear correlation between money spent and votes earned. But it is still likely to have had some impact. Further in-depth investigations will be needed to clarify if any laws have been broken and the punish those responsible. These investigations should be carried out by an independent body to avoid accusations of them being a political witch hunt.
But it is not just China which has been trying to subvert Taiwanese democracy. There is also evidence of the involvement and finance of U.S. Christian organisations supporting the anti-equal marriage referendum campaigns too. All such external involvement in Taiwanese democracy is unacceptable and the government needs to examine the events of this election carefully to ascertain what legislative or other steps need to be taken to minimize the influence of external factors in future elections.
5. Democracy is still thriving in Taiwan
Emotions ran high throughout the election campaign and especially on results night. For some, there was elation. For others, despair.
Regardless of your political opinions, however, if there is one real winner from these elections, it is the democratic process itself. There may have been efforts from China and elsewhere to undermine Taiwanese democracy, but anyone who visited a polling station on Saturday cannot fail to have been taken by the commitment of the Taiwanese people to their hard-earned right to vote.
People lined up to cast their ballot, often for many hours, in the heat and the humidity. At the polling station I visited in Kaohsiung, one woman collapsed and an ambulance was called. She was treated for, I think, heat exhaustion, but refused to go to the hospital until she had voted. That determination to have her say speaks volumes.
People may bemoan the partisan nature of Taiwanese politics. They complain about the influence of fake news and Chinese money. They condemn candidates for their policies, or their lack of policies. They make accusations of corruption and the arrogance of the political elite. But they still treasure their right to vote. And that commitment to democracy bodes well for the future of Taiwan, regardless of the political twists and turns ahead.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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