Written by Igor Rogelja.

Taiwan is gearing up for its first post-Sunflower movement elections and many observers are considering the impact of the movement on voting and the longer term political environment. While the daily grind of the democratic process may be infused with some fresh faces and ideas (not to mention fears), I suggest that the movement’s greatest legacy lies in a more abstract and intangible conception of politics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a trait it shares with the Occupy movements around the world, from Wall Street to Hong Kong’s Occupy Central (with the latter also having overshadowed events in Taiwan as far as global media is concerned). I suggest the effect the movements have had can be understood in two main ways, as a redefinition of the space of politics and as an indictment of ritualised politics.

In Taiwan’s case, I argue that we should understand the Sunflower movement as part of a historical arc of Taiwanese opposition, which leads from beginnings outside the state through the halls of power and back out onto the street. Two slightly outlandish conclusions can be arrived at in this manner; first, that the DPP no longer faithfully represents opposition to the paternalism of the KMT, and second, the institutions of state have to a large extent been hollowed out and left devoid of meaningful political practice.

Taiwan has a venerable tradition of protest dating back to the martial law era. During that period, the wide variety of environmental, human rights, nationalist, liberal, and social groups which made up the Dangwai opposition movement eventually found their home in the Democratic Progressive Party, which became a truly mirrored opposition to the catch-all party state of the KMT. The example of the environmental movement serves as an instructive comparison with South Korea for example. While South Korea’s violent and confrontational transition to democracy has meant environmental pressure groups largely kept clear of radical pro-democracy movements, Taiwan’s case has throughout suggested a great degree of institutional linkage between the main opposition party and various civil society groups, environmentalists included. Yet although the “dang” in dangwai refers to the Guomindang, it could equally have meant the entire state; the space of alternatives was thus constituted outside the state and in opposition to it. Fast-forward to 2014 and we have a situation where the politics of alternatives to the status quo are once again happening outside the state. In fact, it took an occupation of the physical space of the state to demonstrate just how empty and hollow the Legislative Yuan had become. While many marvel at the occupiers’ temerity, I am more astonished by the authorities’ apparent nonchalance over the occupation of what is the nation’s supreme representation of sovereignty and democracy. Except it isn’t.

Ironically, it was the KMT, in a spirit befitting a paternalistic party of Leninist provenance (organizationally speaking), which caused the latest shift of political space outside the state. Through its rather brilliant (if nefarious) “outsourcing” of cross-strait relations to a putatively non-state body, the rot of institutionalised democracy has been laid bare for all to see. Whatever the ebb and flow of party politics may wash up, the rapprochement has been securely placed outside ritualised politics; try as they may, it is a cookie jar beyond the reach of even the tallest DPP legislator.

Once more, we must look beyond the confines of the state and ritualised politics to find legitimate political action precisely in the radicalism of occupying the country’s representative body. While other commentators, including a piece by Jean-Pierre Cabestan, err on the side of caution in evaluating the occupation of the Legislative Yuan, I suggest that it is precisely the forceful transgression of the state-society boundary that legitimizes subsequent action. The occupation has forced an acceptance of a growing chasm between the space of the state and the space of political action not as far as the Guomindang is concerned (note the alacrity of police response to an attempted occupation of the Executive Yuan), but specifically regarding the opposition DPP. From its ascent into power, the hard slog of fighting elections, angering China, mismanaging public funds, and ultimately floundering against the (once potent, now-faded) charm of President Ma have taken a toll on the DPP. Nowhere could this be seen clearer than in the belated attempts to co-opt the Sunflower movement; a true opposition party would have lead the movement, not court it the day after the ball.

While upcoming local elections may yet bring a late harvest of sunflowers to the DPP on the back of KMT in-fighting and popular resentment, its historic claim to legitimately represent a patchwork of social movements opposed to a KMT with an ever clearer mission (unification for the rich?) is hardly believable. As long as it remains essentially a party beholden to the empty ritual of electioneering, it will continue to play catch-up with emerging popular (and populist) movements against the seemingly unstoppable slide of Taiwan into China’s embrace on terms favourable to the island’s elites. Two paths lie ahead; the DPP may attempt a Democrat-style appropriation of the outward signs of protest, accelerating what Shawn Gude calls the ‘fetishization of feelings’ in his piece on the anti-political character of the US Occupy movement. Alternatively (and more interestingly), the sentiment and emotion of the Sunflower movement can appropriate the DPP and move politics back into the state, rattle the proverbial cupboard, and let the cookie jar fall.

Igor Rogelja is a research fellow at the ERCCT. He recently completed his doctoral thesis on the institutionalization of emergent urban authority in Taiwan and China at SOAS, University of London. Image credit: CC by speedbug/Flickr.