Written by Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley.

The November 2014 9-in-1 elections have had a significant impact on Taiwan’s political landscape: the ruling KMT previously controlled 14 out of 22 municipalities and counties, but secured only 6 in this election. Observers have identified several reasons for the KMT’s failure: an unequal distribution of wealth, sluggish government reform, and the KMT’s perceived indifference towards youth and civil movements. One of the major factors is that Taiwan’s voters clearly want change. Most instructive is the fact the KMT lost Taipei city, a seat which had been under its tutelage for 16 straight years. With the DPP not putting forward a candidate, the electorate chose an independent candidate, Ko Wen-je, who has become the first non-partisan mayor of Taipei since the introduction of direct elections to the office. Voters’ willingness to place their faith in an untested, political outsider such as Ko says something about prevailing attitudes towards politics.

Although political parties frequently warn of the dire consequences should their rivals win an election, changes of ruling parties tend to demonstrate as much policy continuity as change. On the one hand, the forces which shape the continuity and decision-making processes in Taiwan despite the rotation of ruling parties may constitute the basis from which Taiwan has achieved economic success and a peaceful regime transition. On the other hand, the same set of internal and external conditions may also create a deep sense of frustration among the citizens for the island’s seemingly lack of institutional transformation and the slow pace of democratic progress.

It is from this viewpoint that a recent topical issue of the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs examines whether and how the shift of power between political parties matters in Taiwan. The question is analysed from a range of political, economic, social, and international policy perspectives to foreground the continuity and change on the island after two turnovers of ruling parties through elections in the current century.

In their article, Fell and Chen compare the KMT’s presidential electoral performance in 2012 with earlier national-level election campaign strategies. They discover that while the change of ruling parties may not result in change of policies, electoral policy change in 2008 produced a tremendous impact on the fortunes of political parties. However in contrast in 2012, figures suggested that the DPP and the smaller parties learnt lessons from 2008 in how to adapt to the new electoral system. The KMT managed to hold onto power by winning reduced majorities in both the presidential and legislative elections in January 2012 as the KMT’s election campaigns appeared to be able to tap into the policy areas that appealed to their voters, including Taiwan’s economic development and achievements on China, corruption issues, ethnic harmony and reforms. Furthermore, the KMT’s identity message in 2012 showed considerable change from 2008 by reintroducing its dual ROC Chinese and Taiwan identity appeal in contrast to the much more Taiwan-themed campaign of 2008.

Chun-yi Lee’s article contrasts the labour policies between Taiwan and China. She argues that under the DPP between 2000 and 2008, labourers gained legal recognition in various aspects. She assesses whether and how the labour policies in Taiwan have changed since 2008 under the KMT, traditionally considered a pro-business party. Meanwhile Lee discusses how the Chinese government promulgated a New Labour Contract Law with effect from 2008. Although many believe that the new Chinese labour policies favour employees over employers, labour unrest and disputes have been soaring in the mainland since 2008. After reviewing the changing paths of labour policies across Taiwan Strait, Lee reflects on the more fundamental challenges in the development of Taiwan’s labour policies and ponders on how these issues may surface and have an impact on China.

Following Lee’s research, Cheng and Fell examine how Taiwan’s policy of multiculturalism has been affected before and after 2008 as labour and marriage migration has altered Taiwan’s demography. The authors ask: Do elections really make a difference in terms of policy outcomes for Taiwan’s claim to multiculturalism? How do the changes in ruling parties have an impact, if any, on Taiwan’s immigrant community? They conclude that both the KMT and the DPP were rhetorically adhering to the normative multiculturalism discourse in their election campaings and also gradually moved to put forward public policy proposals to realise their claims. However the normative discourse was paradoxically undermined by the ruling partities’ conceptualisation of immigrant women as instruments for transmitting national culture and ensuring Taiwan’s international competitiveness. Both major parties prioritise assimilation over a multicultural spirit for respecting immigrants’ cultural rights.

Rawnsley and Feng’s essay continues on the theme of civil society. They tackle the issues of media policies by looking at the student-led Anti-Media Monopoly Movement in 2012, which led to the draft of “Anti-Media Monopoly Act” in 2013. Analysing different versions of the Act, the authors discover that a consensus has emerged for Taiwan’s media industry to move toward oligopoly rather than monopoly. Nevertheless during the long process of waiting for approval by the legislature, observers worry that the essence of the Anti-Media Monopoly Act may finally be lost. As the activists do not fully trust the governing body and are unwilling to endorse its version of the Act, it gives politicians of different affiliations an excuse to play one camp against the other to suit their individual political preferences. This further demonstrates that the polarisation of party politics poses serious obstacles to the quality debate over Taiwan’s media policies.

How the interplay between different stakeholders in a polarised political environment affect policies is similarly addressed in Simona Grano’s paper through the lens of the green movement. The author claims that both the DPP and the KMT use the environment as a tool to attack each other and to compete for votes, but in reality neither party has been able to provide meaningful structural changes for a better environment. This appears to be the greatest challenge facing the NGO community as environmental concerns are merely secondary for the ruling elites during their policy-making process. In addition, Grano discovers that local governments usually pay more attention to economic growth since it is of immediate concern to local communities. While central authorities are more committed to principles of public accountability in order to be re-elected, local officials are more tied to traditional practices relying on favouritism and personal ties. In recent years the conflict of interests between national regulations and local stakeholders has become increasingly influenced by new emerging powers and actors like social organisations, journalists and agencies both at the local and national level.

Finally, Gary Rawnsley situates his discussion at the nexus of Taiwan’s politics, its diplomacy and international communications and frames his analysis with debates about how subsequent governments in Taipei have sought to exercise “soft power”. His paper suggests that Taiwan’s international engagement is not as successful as it otherwise might be because the international and domestic political environments both shape and constrain its public diplomacy strategies. Rawnsley is critical of what he calls the “architecture” of Taiwan’s public diplomacy, both in Taipei and in the government’s overseas missions, and laments particularly the dissolution of the Government Information Office in favour of a new Ministry of Culture. This, he suggests, reflects that the KMT government has decided to project abroad those themes which resonate with party narratives (i.e. “preserving traditional Chinese culture”) over and above considerations of what may be more effective among international audiences, that is, democracy and democratisation. Rawnsley contends that by privileging culture, the KMT has missed an opportunity to communicate themes that correspond more closely to Taiwan’s “soft power” and which would resonate more loudly among audiences in other democracies.

The inspiration for this topical issue came from two major international conferences in 2012: the annual conference of the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS) in Sønderborg, Denmark and the first World Congress of Taiwan Studies organised by Academia Sinica in Taipei. It is our hope to make a valuable intellectual contribution to understanding how democracy functions, the role the political party plays and the complex dynamics and interaction between the state and society in Taiwan today.

 Dr Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley is Associate Fellow, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. She is also the guest editor of the JCCA special issue “Continuity and Change in Policies in Taiwan”.