Written by Jonathan Sullivan.
For a race where one candidate, the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, has enjoyed a seemingly unassailable 20 point lead over her rivals for much of the year, Taiwan’s presidential and legislative campaigns have been full of excitement. Much of that excitement, indeed gleeful disbelief, has been generated on the Green side of the political spectrum as the KMT lurches from one catastrophe to another. But “How low will the KMT go? Can it save the Legislature?” are questions that animate not just Green supporters, but Blue and Red as well.
The outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou will go down in history as Taiwan’s most unpopular president to date—a feat I would never have thought possible when he entered office in 2008 as the KMT’s golden boy with a glowing personal lustre and a remit to clean up after the corrupt and ideologically polarizing Chen Shui-bian. Ma may feel that, if this is to be his legacy, that history has not played fair with him. After all, Ma has overseen a period in which Taiwan’s relations with China have reached an unprecedented level of productive cooperation. When he terms out in 2016, Ma will leave cross-Strait relations in much healthier shape than the gridlocked and rancorous relationship he inherited from Chen.
And yet for all the gains that Ma’s China policy has made in terms of economic agreements and the institutionalization of dialogic and cooperative frameworks, Ma will also leave office with Taiwanese society much more unequal and with a broader sense of relative deprivation than his predecessors. Widespread concerns about the cost of housing and stagnant wages, while corporations with political connections have experienced extraordinary growth through their China operations, mean that the KMT has squandered its long-held reputation as a steward of the economy. The KMT under Ma has become a party for the 1%, in which close relations with China are inextricably linked—a recipe for the electoral disaster that the KMT appears to be heading for.
Ma’s personal modus operandi, an alleged penchant for authoritarianism and aloofness, combined with a personal identification with the Chinese nation that is at odds with the lived reality of most Taiwanese, have magnified popular dissatisfaction with his policy outcomes. A heavy handed approach to relations between the presidential office and the legislative caucus, and sleepwalking into the nomination of a presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, with extreme and extremely unpopular views on Taiwan’s relations with China, were indicative of the KMT leadership’s problems. Nixing Hung at the eleventh hour in favour of the reluctant Chairman Eric Chu (a former rising star who has also lost his lustre) has had no discernible effect on the polls. The eleventh hour meeting in Singapore between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou may have had symbolic resonance outside Taiwan, but domestically reactions have been anger or apathy, and if the intention was to provide the KMT a much needed boost, it hasn’t worked.
The DPP meanwhile has proceeded serenely (to the surprise of some Green supporters nervous about the party blowing its winning hand). Tsai Ing-wen has articulated a moderate cross-Strait policy, inoculating against previous vulnerabilities for the party’s presidential candidates, and has sought to capitalize on the potent mix of economic and social justice issues that has emerged during Ma’s tenure. Tsai has impressed on visits to the US and Japan, and has even featured on the front cover of The Economist’s “The World in 2016” issue. At this juncture, six weeks from Election Day, Tsai is as close as there can ever be to a lock for next president. However, that doesn’t mean that the campaigns are boring or not worth following. The margin of Tsai’s victory will be key to establishing whether the party has a mandate to pursue the policies she is proposing. The DPP’s only other experience of executive power came on the back of a minority win in a three horse race in 2000 and a razor thin win that may have been affected by an election eve shooting in 2004.
In both of Chen Shui-bian’s terms as a DPP president the legislature was controlled by the Blue opposition, which obstructed his every move. In the 2016 legislative races, the DPP has some hope of converting discontent with the KMT into its own legislative majority for the first time. The prospect of the DPP controlling both branches of government represents a major potential change in Taiwanese political competition, and a challenge to the détente policies pursued by Ma. For all of Tsai’s endorsement of the status quo, she does not accept the “1992 Consensus” that has ossified as Beijing’s bottom line for cooperation. How the DPP manages cross-Strait relations, and how Beijing will deal with a party it views as “secessionist”, are major questions going into 2016.
The Taiwan 2016 blog, in association with the Taiwan Studies Program at the University of Nottingham, is a platform for scholarly analysis and commentary about Taiwan and the elections. The blog privileges no political position, but aims to provide a space in which various perspectives and insights can be put forward in a scholarly fashion for reasoned debate. The blog will feature many of the most renowned Taiwan experts from around the world, and will run from now until after the elections in January.
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Jonathan Sullivan is Associate Professor and Director of Research in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. He is the Editor of Taiwan 2016 and Editor of the CPI blog. He tweets @jonlsullivan.