Written by André Beckershof.
A little more than half a year after the Sunflower Movement, the local elections might be seen as a first indicator of the political implications of Taiwan’s largest social movement since the early 1990s. The occupation of the Legislative Yuan was a clear sign to the ruling Kuomintang that the young generation was fed up with economic stagnation, dim prospects for the future, and the KMT’s paternalistic and opaque governing style. What would be more natural than to expect an election outcome that reflects this alienation?
Unsurprisingly, the story is more complex than this. First of all, broad strata of Taiwan’s society still support the KMT’s course to secure economic prosperity through closer relations with China. While the “22K generation”, the university graduates who can expect 22000 NT$ (£450) as their monthly income, feels the stagnation in their daily lives, other groups feel less affected or even expect to benefit. Furthermore, local elections in Taiwan tend to be decided by local issues rather than the big questions: often, business opportunities or personal relations tip the scales in favour of one candidate or the other.
Therefore, we should not expect that the election outcome will be profoundly marked by the events of March and April. Consequently, we should resist the temptation to gauge the Sunflower Movement’s success by looking at the local election results. Instead, the movement’s effects will unfold on a much deeper basis. We can locate the consequences of the events in spring on three levels: electoral politics, civil society, and personal awareness.
The first level of electoral politics is the only one that we will be able to judge in a few days’. A first issue concerns the relative success of the DPP and the KMT. One could expect the DPP to ride the wave of popular support, and the KMT to suffer a defeat that reflects the common dissatisfaction with the central government. But those expecting a watershed event in favor of the DPP should probably brace for a disappointment. While, for example, the DPP-supported independent candidate Ko Wen-je for the Taipei mayoral elections is ahead in the polls, the percentage of undecided voters is still very high, while the reliability of polls and surveys is rather low. In other words: Anything is possible. And while the numbers show that the KMT has slowly declined in the polls over the past few months, it appears as if the DPP has failed to convert the anti-KMT sentiment into outright voter support. Rather, many participants of the Sunflower Movement are disappointed by the political class in general.
On the same level of electoral politics, we can observe how the Sunflower Movement has triggered the emergence of new political groups, or the rejuvenation of groups that have existed before the movement. The Radical Wing, for example, had been established before the movement. But the five candidates who run under its banner in Kaohsiung and Hsinchu are in their 20s and have been marked by the events in spring. The Keelung Youth Front is an example of a group that has emerged out of the Sunflower Movement, and it is firmly rooted in local issues. As enthusiast and committed as these groups are, they are facing an uphill battle against local politicians that have groomed political connections over decades. Other groups, therefore, have chosen to cooperate with established parties. The Formoshock Society was established by Sunflower leaders after the movement, and cooperates with the Taiwan Solidarity Union. All those groups are aware of the challenges ahead, and some see this year’s election as a test run for the future.
The bottom line is that the Sunflower Movement will not have a huge influence on the nine-in-one elections. But this does not mean that the Sunflower Movement has no influence on politics. Certainly if we understand politics in a broader sense that electoral campaigns. The majority of post-Sunflower groups are not aiming at participating in elections, local or national. Rather, they aim to convert the movement’s momentum into strengthening the networks that already permeate Taiwan’s civil society. On this second level, the groups have been rather successful so far. One indicator is the number of volunteers they have recruited: Taiwan March, a group that aims to change the referendum law stands at 1000, while the Appendectomy Project, which runs a campaign to recall three KMT legislators, so far has recruited 700 of the 3000 it will need. While these groups, through their respective goals, are still connected to formal politics, the Black Island Nation Youth Front and Democracy Tautin are skeptical of the election game. Instead, they seek to strengthen the networks, on and off campus, that set in motion a long-term process of grassroots mobilization, of bringing people together to discuss and debate.
It is on the most fundamental level, the level of personal awareness, that the Sunflower Movement triggered a long-term transformation. Young students flock to public debates, lectures and discussions, absorbing information and engaging in arguments. “We want to find out who we are,” a young student told me after such a debate at Taipei’s Café Philo. He said that nobody in his family had ever talked about politics, and that it was only the Sunflower Movement that made him aware of the stakes in Taiwan’s society, as well as of the right to question the elites. “Before the movement, young people like me did not have a political opinion. This is what we are here for, to find out how to form an opinion.”
In this sense, the Sunflower Movement’s influence will not be felt in this year or in the next year. It might not change the outcome of the elections in any profound way, and it would be unfair to assume that it should. But the movement will have long-term effects, as it has marked a whole generation that now claims the right to form an independent opinion.
André Beckershof is an ERCCT research fellow and in the final stage of his Ph.D. project analyzing the transnationalization of cross-Strait relations. Image Credit: CC by speedbug/Flickr