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Taiwanese Political Outlook:

Clashing Interests, Old Party in Crisis


Clashing Interests, Old Party in Crisis


From cross-strait relations to the parliament and party politics, ripples will course through the political scene in Taiwan beginning on January 16, 2016. How the new leadership and citizenry respond will determine how the volatility plays out.



Clashing Interests, Old Party in Crisis

By Ming-hsien Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 587 )

Taiwanese politics in 2016 are the opening act of a coming sea change.

Two major factors have come together in this year to precipitate this sea change. First, burgeoning public opinion eagerly hopes the country can accelerate progress, casting off economic stagnation and bitter political party fighting; meanwhile, Taiwan faces new cross-strait relations colored by changing interactions with China, as well as the heavy pressure of taking on international competition. These issues will test the new leadership’s ability to lead at every turn.

Beginning with the presidential and parliamentary elections early in the year, the next orders of business to emerge will be cross-strait relations, parliamentary reforms, and the new face of the Kuomintang (KMT). 

Divided Sovereignty or One China?

First to take the stage is the challenges of cross-strait relations. Right away, on the night of the January 16 election, all ears on both side of the strait will be tuned in to the winner’s speech.

Chen Xiancai, deputy director of Xiamen University’s Taiwan Research Institute, Graduate Institute of Political Science, admits that Beijing is concerned about the direction Taiwan could take under a new popular consensus that lies somewhere between the extremes of divided cross-strait sovereignty and "One China." The key points of observation for clues will include both the president-elect’s election night remarks and May 20 inauguration address.

"How the new leader frames the direction of cross-strait relations in these two addresses will practically determine how relaxed or tense cross-strait relations will become," he says.

During this period, Taiwan’s new leadership must find ways to stabilize cross-strait relations, as Taiwan differs from other countries in that cross-strait issues must be handled effectively above all else, since instability in this area could stifle Taiwan. "This is not a question of who the ruling party is, but rather how Taiwan can make its way out there," says Ding Shuh-Fan, director of the Institute for International Relations at National Chengchi University.

While smooth cross-strait communication largely depends on China’s satisfaction, Taiwan is not without its own bargaining chips.

Sociologist Ku Chung-hwa says that, although Taiwan cannot match China’s political or economic might, its freedom and democracy act as a counter balance. The consent of the governed being the key to any regime’s legitimacy, China must think twice before putting pressure on Taiwan’s incoming administration, for fear that failure to establish the foundation for a new consensus, and deterioration of cross-strait relations, could tilt Taiwanese popular opinion toward the U.S. or Japan. This would then make the handling of territorial disputes in the South China Sea even pricklier.

What new rules will new Legislature set out?

It is the Legislature that will most likely emerge as the battleground that sets the tone for Taiwanese politics. More precisely, with Taiwan facing the trend toward international economic integration and the pressures of further opening up, the key questions involve the ground rules the new Legislature establishes, and the adjustments needed to take on the checks and balances of the executive.

Among the workarounds, options include finding a way to join the newly formed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, as well as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is expected to be negotiated by late next year. However, these moves would invariably precipitate heavy pressure on Taiwan to open its market considerably, and will raise tensions as interest groups clash in the Legislature.

For instance, in light of the tense relationship between the agriculture and food industries, the thorny issue for the new administration is how to establish a certification system for Taiwanese agricultural products so as to raise consumers’ ability to identify and pick out local products, thereby boosting competitiveness against imported ingredients. Yet that also further necessitates handling conflicts of interest arising between the agricultural and food processing industries.

"The year 2016 is set to be a contentious year, but the fights should be worth fighting," opines one pan-Green legislative candidate hailing from the agricultural belt of Yunlin, Chiayi, and Tainan. "Whether the new leader is willing or not, he or she is going to come up against feisty popular sentiment."

Whilst the Legislature is a crucible for clashing interests, it needs its own set of new and viable ground rules. Popular consensus supports Legislative reform, but the direction of such reform remains unclear. The existing party consultation model is considered by many to be flawed, but there is a dearth of ideas about what could work better. Thus it will be up to the new Legislature to find consensus.

Legislative reform is called for in the checks and balances between Taiwan’s executive and legislative powers. KMT secretary-general, Lee Shu-chuan, a veteran of 30 years in public office, pulls no punches in saying that, if legislators only base their actions on votes, only care about serving constituents, and oppose for opposition’s sake, it would only exacerbate the prevalent attitude among civil servants about not rocking the boat and keeping a low profile.

"Ultimately, how can administration achieve efficiency and the nation attain progress?" he asks.

Century-old Party Must Learn Straight Talk

The new legislative climate has precipitated changes, including political party orientation – especially in the case of the KMT, whose reputation and direction have come under serious fire. As Taiwan rapidly democratized, the party kept one foot firmly planted in the mire of traditional authoritarianism, placing it in the difficult position of being forced to transform.

Lee Liang-chien, professor of finance at I-Shou University, says that it is too early to say what will happen to the KMT after the upcoming election. However, he offers that if it loses its status as the majority party in the Legislature, it could crumble from within, and face the risks of reorganization. This would in turn impact the party’s cross-strait approach, or change its approach to policy.

However, the KMT has little room to maneuver. From the Sunflower Movement’s opposition to authoritarianism, to tectonic shifts in power between the KMT and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the 9-in-1 elections last November, the full weight of critical opinion across society has been thrust onto the beleaguered ruling party.

Facing a host of challenges, the KMT’s new leadership not only must formulate a clearer roadmap, but also show sincerity, electing to pursue a legacy of excellence rather than worrying about short-term wins and losses.

This indicates that the Kuomintang must set clearer, more transparent ground rules for its reform. It must formulate mechanisms for motivating people to pursue self-realization through political parties; otherwise, it will only perpetuate the vicious cycle under which capable individuals are unwilling to put themselves out there for the KMT.

All of this volatility illustrates that, from the government to individual political parties, the challenges ahead for Taiwan over the coming year – be they domestic affairs, foreign diplomacy, or cross-strait issues – must involve easing the pressure of conflict through communication. However, this is not to say that communication means negotiation; rather, communication is about seeking common ground and consensus among different values. And from struggle to communication to rapprochement, the road is sure to be bumpy.

Whether Taiwanese politics in 2016 prove to be crucible of conflict, or a turning point for breaking into a stride out of stagnation, will depend on the new leadership, legislative proceedings, and the party ecosphere, as well as how society views and treats the huge forces for change over this year.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman