“Towards a New Normal in Taiwan’s Democracy?” was an event hosted by the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs in the University of Toronto on February 3rd, 2016. The event featured an introduction by The Director General of the Taiwan Economic Trade Office, Catherine Y.M. Hsu and a panel of three speakers, consisting of Professor Shelley Rigger of the department of East Asian politics at Davidson College, Professor Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang from the Institute of Strategic Studies at Tamkang University, and Professor Joseph Wong from the Munk School of Global Affairs. The panel speakers discussed their reflections and observations on the current state of Taiwanese politics and the future of Taiwan’s political and economic development, especially in relation to the recent 2016 General elections.
As a brief introduction, Hsu described the elections as a “peaceful transfer of power” and the fact that over 40 countries sent their congratulations to Taiwan for their successful election signifies the robustness and stability of the island nation’s democratic system. Following this introductory message, Professor Joseph Wong provided an overview of the election itself, mentioning the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) dramatic victory over the Kuomintang (KMT) in the recent 2016 election. Giving a personal anecdote on the situation, Wong described his feelings of calmness and serenity in regards to the Taiwanese election, which to him signified Taiwan’s status as a normal democracy, something that he stated was the “greatest compliment” that could be lauded to the nation.
The first speaker of the panel, Professor Alexander Huang, commented primarily on the causes for the election’s results and the Democratic Progressive Party’s victory. Analyzing the political aspects, Huang describes the leadership of Taiwan as having a strong background in drawing politicians from the Mainland Affairs Council. As both the new President-elect, Tsai Ing-Wen (蔡英文) and incumbent President Ma Ying-Jeou (馬英九) have served on the council, serving to demonstrate the influence of the council, especially in relations to cross-strait affairs. Huang states that this election is the first time in history that the DPP dominated Taiwanese politics, emphasizing the development of support for the DPP among the grassroots level that allowed them to gain a significant majority over the typically larger KMT.
Huang, in explaining the thought process of the grassroots voter base, described it in terms of three crucial areas being “dignity, security, and prosperity.” In this recent election, Huang saw all three as playing in favor of the DPP. In the election, Huang described the people’s discontent with social, political and economic insecurity, especially concerning new demands for better economic conditions and food safety. However, Huang described the concern regarding increasing mainland Chinese influence in Taiwan as the most important, being what was deemed as a threat to the “dignity” of these Taiwanese voters. Huang summarized both the DPP’s and President Tsai’s view of Cross-Strait relations in Tsai’s statement, “you can never wake up a person who is pretending to be sleeping”, which referred to her KMT predecessors ambivalence in maintaining Taiwan’s status quo. As Huang states that China is simply “sleeping” in the occurrence of such Taiwanese activities that promote a sense of autonomy and independence, the real possibility for an ‘awakening’ gave both President Tsai an advantage among votes, but also placed her and Taiwan in a difficult position for her coming presidency.
The second speaker of the panel, Professor Shelly Rigger, reflected primarily on the reasoning of the Kuomintang Party’s failure (KMT) in the 2016 election. Rigger described the KMT as suffering from a split between the old conservative elite and the newer grassroots members of the party. From 1945 to 2000, the KMT maintained uncontested control over Taiwan. Rigger attributes the KMT’s longstanding success to its broad economic appeal to all socio-economic classes and its deep electoral roots, where the past regional elections that occurred before the democratization of the 1970s entrenched the KMT’s influence deep into the grassroots political community.
However, Rigger states that KMT’s success relied on cooperation between its political elite and the grassroots community that emerged in the post-1980s. With the resignation of two key leaders, Lee Teng-Hui (李登輝) and James Soong (宋楚瑜), who both forged good relations with the grassroots electoral parts of the KMT, the cooperation began to falter between the grassroots and the political elite. Although this divide was negated by the loss of Presidency in 2005, which acted to unify the KMT, the re-emergence of the KMT President Ma-Ying Jeou in the following election in 2008 allowed for the divide to emerge again. Divided along the continuous mainland-focused policies of the central elite, the KMT was split in this regard due to the grassroots members and Ma’s Cabinet not being consulted on such policy changes. As such divides within the KMT weakened the solidarity of the party, it was further compromised by the new moderate path adopted by the DPP. Emphasizing greater focus on domestic issues, the DPP new moderate focus allowed them to move in and secure the median of the electoral vote. Rigger attributed this as a highly influential aspect in the outcome of the 2016 election.
The last speaker, Professor Joseph Wong, primarily reflected on the future of the Taiwanese political environment. Starting with his own interpretation of the KMT loss in the recent election, Wong described KMT’s need to change and reflect on the changing environment of Taiwan’s political sphere, citing the need to accept a dramatic loss as a key medium for this change. Wong described the KMT’s success in the past 2008 election as one of the last chances for the KMT to “learn from losing”, whereby a loss could have shocked and changed its conservative policies and tactics. Wong attributes the current election as a decisive turning point for the KMT, where the political practices of the party finally materialized into a visible mismatch between the KMT and the changing Taiwanese political and economic environment. Describing Taiwan’s economy as a mature and well developed economy, Wong states that the growth of the economy has increasingly slowed, which is creating more onsumption driven inequalities, both being symptoms of post-industrial mature economies. As the KMT failed to adequately adjust their expectations to meet such economic realities, it could not match President Tsai Ing-Wen’s and the DPP’s changing position towards a more moderate stance which was better accustomed to the realities facing Taiwan.
President Tsai’s new stance as a moderate is much queried by Wong, who broadens this question into whether the newer moderate stance and new political themes within Taiwan represent a new “normal.” With the dramatic failure of the KMT, Wong states that China lost a valuable ally in Taiwan due to their embracement of greater cross-strait relations. However, Wong stated that China’s attribution of President Tsai as a moderate and separation from the past pro-independent DPP President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), still allows for a continuation of the working relationship between the two sides. Consequently, President Tsai’s election brings about a bigger question over whether the dynamic of Taiwanese politics has achieved a new normal, achieving a new sense of de-facto independence.
Concisely providing a definite conclusion to the panel, Wong is neither for or against such a new definition of independence. Instead Wong sees the recent election as a clear demonstration of the voters questioning of past proceedings in cross-strait relations and the fact that Taiwan is no longer an abnormal democracy. Rather, Wong sees Taiwan as a “regular” democracy that has the capacity, as seen in the election, to stoke democratic politics which constitute the new political “normal” in Taiwan.
Timothy Law is a 3rd Year student studying International Relations and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies at the University of Toronto, Victoria College. Currently, Timothy serves as an event correspondent and editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies.