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2016 A Different Taiwan Election


2016 A Different Taiwan Election


The 2016 elections seem to represent a significant shift away from traditional patterns of Taiwan party politics. Cross-strait issues played a much smaller role than in the past. Moving toward a more normal left-right politics is a positive development in Taiwan politics.



2016 A Different Taiwan Election

By David G. Brown
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 590 )

Has the nature of Taiwan party politics changed?  In past elections, national identity and cross-strait relations were major issues and the principal issues by which parties differentiated themselves from each other.  More recent elections have seen this pattern changing.  The January 2016 presidential and legislative elections represented a further shift.  In 2016, domestic economic, political reform and social issues were more prominent and were used by parties to differentiate themselves; national identity and cross-strait relations played relatively minor roles.   In that sense, the 2016 elections became more like elections in western democracies where left-right issues differentiate parties.

Why were the traditional unification vs. independence issues that parties have used to define themselves less prominent?  One factor is that both major parties have moved toward the center on national identity and cross-strait issues.  In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou sought to redefine the “pro-unification” Kuomintang party (KMT) as a pro-status quo party.   His three noes policy of no unification, no independence and no use of force aimed to maintain the status quo in cross-strait relations, while enhancing and institutionalizing ties with Beijing.  In 2016, Tsai-Ing-wen sought to move the “pro-independence” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to the center in Taiwan politics by stating that the goal of her cross-strait policy is to maintain the status quo.  She emphasized her commitment to maintain peace, to establish dialogue and to build upon the existing peaceful relations.   In effect, both parties focused on their short-term status quo goals and seldom spoke of their long-term preferences.

Another factor is that over the past decade a limited consensus appears to have emerged from the divisive partisan infighting around the turn of the century.  The elements of this consensus include:  a strong sense of Taiwanese identity, a growing acceptance that the Republic of China (ROC) is the country's name, a continued preference for the status quo, a shared commitment to Taiwan's democratic values, an awareness that it is not in Taiwan's interest to provoke its increasingly powerful China, and a desire for Taiwan's dignity to be respected abroad.  The percentage of people self -identifying as exclusively Taiwanese has risen to about sixty percent in the Ma Ying-jeou era.  Tsai Ing-wen attended the ROC National Day ceremony for the first time in 2015.  That young people who are intensely pro-Taiwan appear more pragmatic than their elders on cross-strait issues is an indication that generational change contributes to this consensus.  Differing views exist within this general consensus, and some at both ends of the spectrum do not accept it at all.   

A final factor in the diminished role of the traditional issues is that this election occurred at the end of a seven-year period of peaceful, stable cross-strait relations.   In this context, the public seemed to believe that regardless of which party won, cross-strait relations would not return to the tension and confrontation of the Chen Shui-bian era.  This belief may have been reinforced by the decidedly neutral position that the US government adopted toward the candidates, which implied that Taiwan's major ally believed that its core interest in peaceful cross-strait relations would not be threatened regardless of who won.  The ways in which traditional unification-independence issues were a factor will be addressed later. 

By contrast, polling indicated that the main voter concerns involved the economy, political infighting and social issues.   These issues and others like corruption had played a role in earlier elections, particularly with the growing block of independent voters.   However, they were more prominent in 2016.  The economy was forefront because the decline in global growth, including China, had lead to eleven months of reduced Taiwan exports and annual GDP growth of 0.58 percent in 2015.  The candidates focused on the economy. Tsai Ing-wen developed detailed proposals for restoring growth, and growth that would include all geographic areas and social groups.   Tsai also made political reform, particularly of the Legislature, along with government transparency and accountability key campaign themes.   All candidates focused on the key social issues:  income inequality, pension reform, food safety and education that polls showed were of widest concern.  

The emergence of new political forces was an important aspect of the 2016 elections.  Over the previous four years, social movements, most importantly the Sunflower Student Movement, had emerged as an important and influential element in Taiwan politics.  These movements helped define the economic, reform and social agenda for the campaign.   Among the 18 parties contesting the legislative election, two grew out of these social movements:  the New Power Party (NPP) and the Green-Social Democratic Party Alliance.  Individuals from the Sunflower Student Movement played leading roles in both these parties.  Although these pro-Taiwan parties are correctly characterized as being “pan-green,” they campaigned and defined themselves primarily on the basis of their political and social reform agendas.   While only in existence a few months, the NPP emerged from the election as the third largest party in the Legislative Yuan (LY).   The role of these new forces contributes much to the sense that Taiwan politics are changing.

This campaign led to a decisive DPP victory, with Tsai garnering 56 percent of the presidential vote and the DPP capturing 68 of 113 seats in the LY.  What explains the result?  It was a combination of substantive and tactical factors.    On substance, Tsai positioned herself and the DPP in line with the voter concerns described above.  She did this by moving the party to the center on cross-strait issues and astutely focusing her campaign on economic, reform and social issues of concern to voters.  Tactically, she ran a superb campaign by uniting the party under firm leadership, avoiding infighting, and by forging alliances with the NPP and Social Democrats.   But the election was also a substantive and tactical failure for the KMT, which was burdened by President Ma's poor performance.   Substantively, Hung Hsiu-chu, the initial KMT nominee, unfortunately focused her campaign on very unpopular pro-unification proposals.  This divided the KMT, and brought James Soong and his People's First Party (PFP) into the race.  Subsequently, the KMT's failure to repair ties with Soong and cooperate effectively with the PFP in the LY elections sealed the divisions within the pan blue camp and cost the KMT many LY seats.  

During the campaign, Beijing avoided taking sides and did not criticize Tsai by name.   Beijing now must face the reality of a DPP controlling both the executive and legislature.  The DPP victory combined with the impact of the Sunflower Movement and the strengthening sense of a separate Taiwanese identity together represent a fundamental challenge to Beijing's eventual goal of reunification.  However, in the short-term, the DPP victory may be less threatening, despite Beijing distrust of Tsai.  She was elected with a mandate to preserve the status quo and since her election has continued to reach out to Beijing.  In the future, if the DPP is seen as responsible for fostering confrontation that mandate could be lost.

Despite being a different kind of election, there were ways in which cross-strait issues did play a role.  First, Beijing tried again to make support for the 1992 Consensus on one China a factor in the election as it had done in 2012.  However, Tsai's embrace of the status quo and the large lead she maintained in the polls undercut their effort.  Secondly, those on both extremes who sought to define themselves around the old unification vs. independence framework suffered severely.  Hung Hsiu-chu advocated political negotiations with Beijing, reaching a common interpretation of one China and developing ideas about eventual unification.  This was so out of step with public sentiment and contrary to KMT policy that her candidacy collapsed, and she was replaced by Eric Chu.   At the other end, the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), which had established a record of opposing everything related to cross-strait relations in the LY, continued to focus its campaign on its traditional pro-independence position.  The result was that TSU support fell below three percent, and the party will no longer be represented in the LY.  

Finally, one other cross-strait event must be mentioned – the Chou Tzu-yu incident.  Chou was a 16-year-old Taiwan pop star who held up an ROC flag on a program in Korea, only to be denounced as a “Taiwan Independence activist” by another Taiwan pop star in China.   When Chou's Korean company forced her to apologize publicly the evening before the election, the video of her apology dominated the news in Taiwan on election day.   She had not been treated with dignity. The video stoked widespread sympathy for Chou and anti-China sentiment that is widely credited with benefiting the DPP. 

In sum, the 2016 elections seem to represent a significant shift away from traditional patterns of Taiwan party politics.  The successful parties used domestic economic, reform and social issues to define themselves in the campaign.   Cross-strait issues played a much smaller role than in the past.  Those who tried to highlight the old issues lost ground.   Moving toward a more normal left-right politics is a positive development in Taiwan politics.   To what extent this trend will continue in the future remains to be seen.  

David G. Brown is an adjunct Professor at the Johns Hopkins University's Scholl of Advanced International Studies.