Written by Ek-hong Ljavakaw Sia.

The race for Taipei mayor has attracted the most attention among voters both inside and outside of the capital. A crucial but often hidden reason is that the election for Taipei City mayor has become a key battleground in the fight between Chinese and Taiwanese nationalisms.

Unlike most Western democracies, the major political fault line in Taiwan is not the left-right divide but the struggle between rival nationalisms. While nationalist politics in Taiwan have been closely intertwined with ethnic identity and party competition, in recent years it has become increasingly detached from these two factors, instead becoming entangled in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) strategy of economic nationalism – the so-called “promoting unification by economic means”. The end result of this realignment might be a “Taiwanese version of the ‘war of 1% vs. 99%’ with Chinese characteristics.” The cross-Strait crony political-business complex belonging to the 1% (hereafter, the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance) seeks to not only economic and environmental exploitation of the 99% of Taiwanese citizens, but also denies the national aspiration of making Taiwan a genuine independent state.

The first aspect of the dealignment is the uncoupling of the nationalist positions and ethnic origins of candidates. Neil Peng, a popular waishengren satirist running as an independent in the Taipei City mayor election, expresses a lucid and radical Taiwanese nationalism, advocating resistance to the encroachment upon Taiwan’s political autonomy by the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance and preaching the removal of the Republic of China’s (ROC) colonialism from Taiwan. The Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Sean Lien originating from a banshan (半山) family acts as the CCP-favored agent for the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance in this election. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) backed independent Ko Wen-je who, coming from a native Taiwanese family that suffered in the 228 incident, has turned his nationalist attacks solely towards the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance while glossing over the ROC’s colonization of Taiwan and issues of transitional justice.

The second aspect of the nationalist dealignment is that nationalism-oriented social forces are dissociated from the two main parties. The ambiguous, self-deceiving ROC-version of Chinese nationalism propagated by the KMT appears increasingly anachronistic in a democratized Taiwan. The supporters of this ideology have gradually disassociated from the KMT. First, it appears that many ideologically-oriented iron votes in the blue camp are turning “red” and are no longer under KMT’s control. For instance, in the KMT closed primary election, Lien, a widely-recognized pampered son of a rich half-Taiwanese family lacking any political experience except his success in becoming the CCP-favored agent for the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance actually won 67% of the KMT party members’ votes, significantly ahead of the 30% won by the second placed candidate Ting Shou-chung, a second-generation waishengren parliamentarian with a wholesome image who had the support of the KMT chairman Ma Ying-jeou. Moreover, Ma’s policy of intensifying cross-Strait exchanges after 2008 have allowed the CCP to bypass the KMT central party organization and make direct connections with pro-KMT local factions, whose loyalty toward the KMT, based on the philosophy of “whoever suckles me is my mother”, is easily be transferred to another more generous patron, that is, the CCP. Finally, voters who self-identify as Taiwanese but previously voted for the KMT have begun to have serious doubts about the party’s cross-Strait policies and become attracted by a third force outside the two main parties resisting the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance.

Pro-Taiwanese nationalism social forces began to disassociate themselves from the DPP during President Chen’s second term. After the KMT retook office in 2008, the DPP was either absent or excluded, or played only a trivial role as a follower in the succession of both large and small protests on social issues or against the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance. In contrast, social movements have gradually gained confidence and experience from repeated and increasingly large mobilization. They have low expectations towards the DPP, regarding the party as a dispensable teammate. In the past twenty years, the DPP had served as the main organizational vehicle and agenda setter for Taiwanese nationalism; nowadays, however, this role is increasingly being taken over by civil groups.

Pro-Taiwanese nationalism social forces function in two ways in this election. In the winner-takes-all election for Taipei City mayor, given that the social momentum that sustained Ko overwhelmed the DPP’s moribund reputation, the DPP eventually gave way to Ko, yielding the leadership of Opposition Alliance to Ko and choosing not to nominate its own candidate. The main force behind Ko’s campaign is a large group of passionate “netizens” lacking in any formal organization. With an unfailing supply of unpaid netizens working on his behalf, Ko can compete with the extremely well-resourced Lien camp at minimum cost. The passionate involvement of netizens can be hardly explained by a belief that Ko will be a good mayor but in fact reflects a widespread fear among the young generation that should Lien win the election, they will face the nightmare of neoliberal capitalism with Chinese crony characteristics.

Pro-Taiwanese nationalism social forces are also involved in the multi-member municipal councilor elections, primarily competing against the DPP. Green Party Taiwan and Wing of Radical Politics, both of which were deeply involved in the Sunflower Movement, have nominated twelve and five candidates for city councilor respectively, obviously intending to compete for the progressive, Taiwanese nationalist-oriented, and ideologically radical voters who are conventionally regarded as firm supporters of the pan-green camp. In addition, Restoration of Taiwan Social Justice which was established after the Sunflower Movement by young activists has cooperated with preexisting pro-independence groups to form the “Taiwan Independence Alliance”, with at least 67 candidates for city councilor joining this alliance. Finally, an unprecedented more than 200 young candidates are standing for neighborhood chief, campaigning in areas that have been dominated by KMT vote brokers for decades.

The Sunflower Movement set off a momentum among the younger generation to participate in politics in various ways. These forces are independent from the DPP while also maintaining a relationship of “coopetition” with the party, while, nevertheless, expressing undisguised hostility toward the KMT and the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance. Benefiting greatly from the nationalist dealignment and the rise of young pro-Taiwanese nationalism forces, Ko has maintained a substantial lead over Lien in favorability ratings for several months.

Will the 2014 Taipei City mayor election be a precursor to the 2016 presidential election? Let’s imagine two possible scenarios. First, civil groups nominate a candidate with experience, nation-wide visibility, a positive image, and tried and trusted ability to represent the “Opposition Alliance” in place of the likely DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen to run against the agent of the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance. Second, the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance assigns an agent much more competitive than Lien in 2016, e.g. Terry Gou,one Taiwanese capitalist running the largest electronics manufacturing operation in the world with factories mostly in China, or someone alike, and KMT heavyweights who are interested in a presidential run become the next Ting Shou-chung defeated by the CCP-favored agent for the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance.

If both of these two scenarios occur, we can conclude that the realignment of nationalist competition has been completed. In this realigned nationalist competition, the two main parties lose the leaderships of their own camps. In the presidential election, the CCP-headed Red-Blue-Gold Alliance will line up against social forces led by civil society groups resisting the Red-Blue-Gold Alliance. The KMT may retain a legislative majority, but with an increasing number of legislators who are directly or indirectly under the CCP’s control. The DPP will face competition from candidates nominated by civil groups, which in the long run might lead repeating early 20th Century British history when the Liberal Party was superseded by the Labour Party.

Ek-hong Ljavakaw Sia is an ERCCT research fellow, currently working on his Ph.D. project investigating church-state relations and the rise of ‘ecological nationalism’ in contemporary Taiwan. Image Credit: CC by yi/Flickr