Written by J. Michael Cole.

Merely 48 hours to go before Taiwanese across the nation cast their votes in the nine-in-one local elections. With regulations barring the release of polling data ten days prior to the election, one can only now speculate about how each party, along with independent candidates, will fare on Nov. 29. What is known, however, is that facing the prospects of a major setback, the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has begun to sound desperate and taken eleventh-hour measures that, while possibly giving its candidates an edge over their opponents, could backfire by further discrediting them in the eyes of a watchful—and battle hardened—civil society.

Fear, lies, and big money

As discussed in a previous article on the CPI blog and elsewhere, in the constituencies where it faces outright defeat, and more importantly in those where the race is close, the KMT has resorted to a variety of tactics that unfortunately do not reflect well on the quality of Taiwan’s electoral democracy. Character assassination, fabrication, negative campaigning (serious thought needs to be given to curbing the phenomenon), and fear mongering have been at the core of KMT Taipei mayor candidate Sean Lien’s campaign strategy against its main (and leading) opponent, Ko Wen-je, who is running as an independent. Several of Lien’s TV ads, including one which portrays Taipei the day after an implied Ko victory that had to be pulled for breaking campaigning regulations, have furthermore dragged in topics that are altogether unrelated to the race for mayor of the nation’s capital, such as the China-South Korea FTA (the 60-second ad, which has been widely criticized as racist, leaves the viewer with one message: Vote KMT on 11/29, or Taiwan will lose out to South Korea).

But the Lien camp’s negative campaigning and lack of a coherent platform are only part of the story. To secure victory in Taipei and other locales, the KMT has embraced tactics that while not illegal per se, give it an unfair advantage over its opponents. The most prominent of those is a campaign to facilitate the return to Taiwan of taishang, Taiwanese businesspeople operating in China who tend to vote overwhelmingly in favor of the KMT, so they can vote on Nov. 29. An estimated 1 million taishang are based in China. According to a recent investigation by Reuters, state-owned Air China and Taiwan’s China Airlines, along with more than a dozen others, have agreed, with ostensible pressure from the Association of Taiwan Investment Enterprises on the Mainland (ATIEM), to provide 50 percent discounts on airfare for Taiwanese businesspeople returning to Taiwan to vote. A spokesman for China Airlines told the news agency that the discounts were offered because November is “low season.” Interestingly, no similar discounts appear to have been offered to, say, Taiwanese-Americans—many of whom fled overseas during the White Terror and who are therefore less likely to vote KMT—who wish to return to Taiwan to cast their vote.

This may not constitute the naked vote buying associated with red envelopes bursting with bank notes, but the practice is nevertheless of questionable legality, especially when we consider the fact that Chinese airlines (and therefore money) are involved.

Another intervention has been that of Terry Gou, the chairman of Foxconn, who has the tendency to promise millions of dollars in local investment if a certain candidate—invariably from the KMT—is elected. Described by Forbes as “Taiwan’s richest tech magnate,” Gou has made no secret of his close ties to China, where he runs several factories. Nor has he shied away from voicing his lack of patience with the checks and balances of democracy. The 64-year-old has appeared at several rallies for KMT candidates, and even figures on some campaign posters supporting the candidate from the ruling party.

As with the discounted plane tickets, Gou’s participation in politics isn’t illegal, and the man, however reprehensible his views on democracy might be, has every right to express his political preference. But as we will discuss below, Gou’s image as a pro-China and anti-democratic leader of the amoral “big business” that is so often associated with the KMT could spell trouble for the party after the elections.

Before we turn to this, however, we must also briefly mention other practices used by the pan-blue camp that, this time, are clearly illegal. Allegations of rampant vote buying by KMT candidates (including a politician who was once convicted for doing so) have emerged in various cities and counties (a few DPP candidates have been accused of the crime; if guilty, they should be punished like everybody else). In one riding with an unenviable reputation for gangster rule, black-clad men of dubious repute have intimidated volunteers from the opposition party and, in thus doing, prevented them from campaign for their candidate. In Taipei, individuals associated with pro-unification organizations and possible underworld figures physically assaulted protesters who had gathered near an open-air campaign rally for Lien, with police failing to intervene.

United Front Work, in which China, using Taiwanese contacts, has dealt directly with candidates or local representatives it hopes to do business with, thus bypassing government agencies or even the KMT, is also a problem that may have reached unprecedented levels in the current election, though much more work needs to be done to assess its scope and possible impact on local politics.

Civil society: a fair warning

The above incidents have created an impression among many an observer that the contenders for the Nov. 29 elections are not operating on a level playing field and that the electoral system has once again been “gamed” by the blue camp. Although it often got away with such practices in the past, this time around the short-term benefits of playing unfairly could cost the KMT dearly after the elections.

What has changed is the emergence (or re-emergence) of an activist (and in some cases militant) civil society in Taiwan, which for the most part remains wary of all politicians and political parties. Many of the young cadres who comprised the Sunflower Movement, which occupied the Legislative Yuan in March and April this year, as well as members of other civic organizations do not trust the main political parties (including Ko, who they regard as too close to the DPP) and will likely not vote or will cast a vote that “doesn’t count”—shorthand for voting for a candidate from a minor party. While mostly silent during the electoral campaigns, the young activists are observing from the sidelines, and no doubt taking notes. Above all, they are waiting to see whether the candidates—and the KMT more specifically—have learned their lessons from the Sunflower occupation, which succeeded in thwarting plans by the government to summarily pass a highly problematic trade agreement with China. Besides stalling the agreement, the unprecedented 24-day occupation sent a strong message to Taiwanese politicians, one that we are unsure registered with the Ma Ying-jeou administration: Clean up your game, or we will fight back.

And this is where the bad practices detailed above, plus the double standards seen in law enforcement and the courts during the campaign, could come back to bite the KMT after the elections, especially in the cities, counties and villages where such tactics, rather than viable platforms or popularity, led to a KMT victory. Naturally, the warning also applies to non-KMT candidates (including Ko), though there is no moral equivalence to be found: the KMT has been singularly involved in those undemocratic practices, claims by Lien that he was the target of the “worst smear campaign” in the history of Taiwan notwithstanding.

The threat from a militant civil society is one that politicians would ignore at their own risk. While many may be unaware (or have forgotten), the Sunflower Movement, which formed to involve itself in politics at the national (and cross-strait) level, was itself comprised of dozens of initially loosely tied precursor groups that for years had operated at the local level.* In fact, the great majority of the Sunflower activists, from leaders like Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting to the support staff who played an indispensible role in sustaining the occupation in the spring, cut their teeth by participating in various protests, sometimes as leaders, and sometimes as foot soldiers, over the years. While local protests haven’t made the news to the same extent that the Sunflower occupation did, the activists are none the less dedicated in their efforts to counter the policies of politicians and agencies that are perceived to be working against the interests of the majority. In many cases, big business and its ugly cousin, the China factor, were at the heart of the controversies; thanks to efforts by groups like the Sunflowers as well as some of its precursors, activists have become particularly adept at connecting issues that are primarily local with the external factors (primarily China) that often compound (and sometimes create) the problem. The importance of this connection cannot be emphasized enough. Needless to say, KMT wins in Taipei and Taoyuan, among others, would severely increase the likelihood of serious unrest in coming years due to the candidates’ close conflicts of interest (e.g., real estate) and relationships with Chinese businesses (e.g., the Taoyuan Aerotropolis project).

Furthermore, the cross-pollination of causes that ultimately coalesced into the Sunflower Movement, and the networks that developed over time, means that groups that operate at the local level now potentially have greater resources—bodies, know how, financial resources, contacts, et cetera—to rely on. Finally, thanks to the “star” status that some of the leaders have acquired thanks to the Sunflower Movement, their participation in local activism will likely attract much greater attention than such causes would have done in the past (Chen Wei-ting’s role in protests in support of laid-off workers is one such example).

When it left the legislature on April 10 (at a time of its own choosing), the Sunflower Movement issued a declaration in which it made clear its determination to take action anew should the government continue to fail society. If the administration didn’t hear the warning and proceeds to place incompetent or compromised officials in office through the nefarious practices discussed above, there is a high likelihood that some iteration of the Sunflower Movement, by now an umbrella for various organizations operating at the local and national levels simultaneously, will strike back, especially in cases where a China component plus big business are believed to exist. This new breed of activists is resilient, battle hardened, and more importantly it does not fear the consequences of its actions.

Elections are just a mechanism, one that can be manipulated to benefit the wealthier party; it’s what happens between them that matters. The principal legacy of the Sunflower Movement is that more and more Taiwanese are now paying attention to the quality of the leadership between elections and are willing to take action if quality is found to be lacking. Consequently, winning the election, by means fair or foul, is the easy part; candidates who rode on the latter to steal an election should brace themselves.

* The list includes, but is not limited to: the Wild Strawberries, the Alliance Against Media Monster, the Black Island Nation Youth Alliance, Citizen 1985, Taiwan March, as well as a plethora of self-help organizations, NGOs, and minor parties that mobilized over environmental issues (the Kuokuang petrochemical plant), laid-off workers (e-Tag, National Alliance for Workers of Closed Off Factories), nuclear energy, urban renewal and forced evictions (Wang Jia, Dapu, Huaguang Community, Losheng Sanatorium, Taoyuan Aerotropolis project, Sun Moon Lake, Tainan underground railway), and other projects (Miramar resort in Taitung, wind turbines in Yuanli).

J. Michael Cole is a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei, and editor in chief of http://www.thinking-taiwan.com. Photo by the author.