Elections and the Electoral System in Taiwan

Elections are important symbolic events that have acted as milestones, points of contestation and concession throughout the course of Taiwan’s political development in the last three decades. Since democratization processes began in earnest in the mid-1980s, and even before that in limited local elections during one party rule, most elections have been strongly contested by political parties and candidates, with the campaigns and results keenly felt by their supporters. Elections, and the campaigns that precede them, are an impressive and inescapable feature of Taiwanese democracy at the national and local level. Following reforms in the 2000s to simplify an unnecessarily complicated system, all elected officials now serve four-year terms. Since 2012 elections for national office (President/Vice President and the Legislative Yuan) are held concurrently. Reflecting further streamlining, multiple local elections (mayors and councilors at the municipal, county, and township levels) are also now held concurrently at the midpoint between national elections. Local elections were held in late November 2014, with national elections to be held in 2016. Direct national level elections for the entire Legislative Yuan and the presidency were held for the first time in 1992 and 1996 respectively, and constitute major milestones in Taiwan’s democratization journey. Contemporary Taiwan has a competitive, multi-party political system in which two major parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), are preeminent. The media environment is highly developed, relatively liberal and provides a substantial amount of political coverage. Taiwan enjoys a dynamic election culture sometimes resembling “democratic festivals” (Fell 2011: 56). This chapter will first provide an overview of elections as Taiwan progressed from one party rule to liberal democracy. Second, it will review the voluminous literature on various aspects of elections in Taiwan. Then it will provide a summary of the issues and results of presidential, legislative and local elections. The chapter will next address the issue of vote buying, before concluding with an assessment of the freedom and fairness of Taiwan’s elections. Read full paper here.

The KMT’s China Policy: Gains and Failures

The KMT’s China policy under President Ma Ying-jeou has been based on four overarching aims. First, to stabilize cross-Strait relations that effectively came to a halt at the semi-official level during his predecessor Chen Shui-bian’s tenure. Second, to revive Taiwan’s economic fortunes through closer integration with the Chinese economy. Third, to balance the imperative of economic incentives with the maintenance of “national dignity”. Fourth, to roll back the “de-Sinicization” elements of Chen Shui-bian’s “Taiwanization” program by emphasizing elements of Taiwan’s Chinese cultural heritage and situating Taiwan within the framework of the greater Chinese nation. The underlying device used to pursue these aims has been the “1992 Consensus”, a rhetorical position regarding Taiwan’s status vis-à-vis China characterized by “One China, separate interpretations”. The “1992 Consensus” is controversial in Taiwan, but its ambiguities have created space for the two sides to develop a workable platform and a new level of momentum. During Ma’s tenure, this platform has yielded a number of practical agreements across several socio-economic sectors, including a limited free trade agreement, the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). When he stands down at the end of his second term in 2016, Ma Ying-jeou will leave cross-Strait relations in significantly better shape than when he began his presidency in 2008. In that sense, his China policy can be considered a success. However, such is the complicated and multifaceted nature of Taiwan’s engagement with China that Ma’s China policy cannot be measured by the tone of cross-Strait relations alone, or by the tenor of particular leaders’ personal interactions or KMT-CCP relations. Taiwan’s China policy has implications for its economy, society, foreign relations and many other policy sectors, and it remains one of the most contested arenas for domestic political competition, often, but not exclusively, refracted through the prism of national identity. Expanding our analytical lens to include these other arenas will demonstrate that the KMT’s China policy under Ma has produced mixed results that can be interpreted as successes or failures depending on one’s point of view. In this paper, we aim to provide a balanced assessment of Ma’s China policy, incorporating multiple perspectives and covering multiple policy sectors. Full paper here.

The strategy behind the Xi-Ma meeting

When Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou shake hands on Saturday in Singapore, it will be the first time in history that sitting presidents from the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China will have met each other face to face, even if they will not address each other as such. The symbolism is rich, particularly on the PRC side, where the image of a Taiwan returning to the fold is more powerful than scenes of Xi rubbing shoulders with US President Barack Obama or being received in state by the queen in Britain. The meeting is obviously a coup for Ma, a man driven by a keen sense of the Chinese nation and his personal role in its preservation. It is also great news for Beijing to serve up at home, with the Global Times pronouncing that “the Taiwan problem is no longer a problem”.

Beyond the warm and fuzzy state media coverage, the timing of the meeting reveals a lot about the intentions behind it. We are just two months away from elections in Taiwan that will almost certainly see the Democratic Progressive Party win the presidency and a legislative majority for the first time. For Beijing, which suspects DPP president Tsai Ing-wen’s “true intentions” and her capacity to keep the “secessionist tendencies” of her party’s factions in check, it is an unnerving prospect.

The last time the DPP controlled the presidency, despite facing an obstructive Kuomintang/People First Party majority in parliament, Chen Shui-bian was able to widely cement the idea of Taiwan’s distinctness and separation from the rest of China. Now, after eight years under a president who is unusually well disposed to the mainland and, in his first term at least, powerful enough to push through significant moves towards economic integration, the trends in Taiwanese public opinion are unpropitious for advocates of closer ties. Decades-long opinion polls show the Taiwanese have never been surer about their identity, and identification with Taiwan is unequivocal among the young. At this point, Beijing has decided to intervene.

In the short term, the prospect of Beijing’s intervention rescuing the KMT, which has for months been sleepwalking towards catastrophic electoral defeat, is slim. Although the KMT recently acted to remove its duly elected presidential nominee, the unificationist Hung Hsiu-chu, the machinations needed to replace her with chairman Eric Chu appear to have been a wasted effort. Tarnished by his ties to Ma and the protracted drama over his decision to run, Chu’s poll numbers are little better than Hung’s. Building on historic gains in last November’s local elections, the national campaigns have thus far been plain sailing for the DPP. Tsai has staked out popular positions on China and the economy, and gave an accomplished performance on her trip to the US. She currently enjoys a double-digit lead. Given that Ma’s unpopularity is mainly a product of a rush to embrace China, combined with his opaque decision-making – the sunflower movement was first and foremost about transparency in politics – it is difficult to see how a clandestinely arranged surprise meeting with the Chinese president will help the KMT at the polls. Full article at South China Morning Post.

First take on Xi-Ma meeting

In a surprising—indeed, extraordinary—development in cross-Strait relations, Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet with his counterpart from Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, in Singapore on Saturday. According to an announcement by the Presidential Office in Taiwan, the two leaders will not sign any agreements, issue any joint statements or hold a joint press conference. The statement adds that the agenda and purpose of the meeting is yet to be settled. Although Singapore is acting as middleman, as it has in the past, it was surely initiated by the Chinese side—which has plenty of motivation these days to seek Taiwan’s attention.

President Ma has made no secret of his longstanding desire to meet with his PRC counterpart, but he does not have the power to call President Xi to an ad hoc meeting. The delay in releasing the agenda suggests that it was hastily arranged. Presumably, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council and Ministry of Foreign Affairs are scrambling to find the best way to finesse the issue of Ma’s status: since the PRC does not countenance any actions that could be construed as endorsing the existence of “two Chinas,” Ma will not be attending as the eleventh President of the Republic of China, his official title. Any diminution or perceived acceptance of slight will not go down well with a Taiwanese public that has long since turned against the outgoing Ma’s two-term embrace of China, a stance many say was to Taiwan’s detriment. Continue reading at The National Interest.

Hung makes way for Chu

The New York Times has an excellent journalist, Austin Ramzy, covering developments in Taiwan. I shared some thoughts on the recent nomination snafu:

“With incredible lack of foresight, and I suspect a generous dose of ignorance and arrogance, neither Ma nor Chu appear to have sensed that choosing Hung would exacerbate an already fraught situation for the party,” Jonathan Sullivan, associate professor and director of research at the University of Nottingham’s School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, said in an email. “And for months they blithely carried on. Having made the decision to nix Hung, Chu had no choice but to run.”

“Tsai has staked out the center ground where most voters are by sticking steadfastly to ‘maintaining the status quo,’ ” Mr. Sullivan said. “It is ambiguous enough and palatable enough for most players that China policy will not be an obvious Achilles’ heel for the D.P.P. this time.”

Read the entire article here

The KMT nomination nightmare

The Kuomintang is expected to confirm Hung Hsiu-chu as its first female presidential candidate, ahead of the 2016 election, at its party congress next month. Hung, currently the deputy speaker in Taiwan’s legislature, has already passed the first step to nomination: a combined party and public vote. If, as expected, Hung’s nomination is confirmed, it will pit her head-to-head with Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party.

For an East Asian polity with a significant “Confucian heritage” still manifest in patriarchal social norms, an all-female contest for the presidency is no small matter. Many Taiwanese are rightly proud of improvements in gender equality. But the gender of the two candidates is not the real issue here.

When Tsai stood for president for the first time in 2012, gender was a conspicuous non-issue. Tsai lost, not because of her gender but because voters did not trust her hastily assembled China policy. Tsai has since sharpened her thinking on China, and has adopted a position that appeals to the moderate middle. The same cannot be said for Hung, whose views on China are not shared by the majority of Taiwanese.

Hung is an advocate of faster economic integration leading to unification. In a long and undistinguished political career, she is best known for her strident ideological views. Until now a marginal character in the KMT, Hung has a reputation for pugnacity and a sketchy electoral record. She secured the deputy speaker position as a balance to the “local wing” speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, who prizes pragmatism in terms of future political solutions. Although her father was a victim of the KMT’s White Terror, a political purge during the martial law era, Hung has shown strong commitment to the party. In a polity where pragmatism is the norm, at least at election time, Hung’s commitment to old ideals and pursuit of unification with China is unusually steadfast.

This would not be a story if Hung’s nomination were consistent with the trajectory of Taiwanese public opinion. But the attitude of the majority of the electorate is moving firmly in the opposite direction, both on China and “traditional” attitudes. Continue reading at SCMP.

Environmental Protests

Mass environmental protests continue to gain strength in China. Within the last couple of months thousands of people in different parts of the country have vocally, and in some cases violently, railed against polluting chemical plants, waste incinerator projects and coal-fired power plant expansions.

New incidents are reported every week through Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. The most recent large-scale incident saw more than a thousand people take to the streets in the suburbs of the northern industrial city of Tianjin claiming that pollution from a nearby steel plant was carcinogenic. Just days earlier thousands of residents in Wuchuan, a city in southern Guangdong, marched on government offices to oppose plans to build a waste incinerator near their homes.

These waves of protest are unique in that they are uniting China’s working and middle classes under a common grievance. Party leaders fret about political stability and potential challenges to the regime; pollution is one of their greatest concerns. But the Chinese government is failing to address the underlying cause of this discontent – an entrenched public distrust of officialdom – and, in the long term, is risking the possible ‘joining up’ of environmental protests into a widespread movement.

The government’s search for a solution is likely to prove fruitless; its only option appears to be maintaining social unrest at a manageable and local level. For these environmental protests are striking at the heart of the Chinese governance model of ‘adaptive authoritarianism’ and exposing its limitations. The Party’s strategy in dealing with major environmental disputes that bring together local communities across all ages and classes has often been one of short-term appeasement. But when governments are known to make ad-hoc concessions to quell disorder it encourages further episodes of contention.

The anger of protestors, each fighting their own local causes, was vindicated in April when an explosion at a chemical factory producing paraxylene (commonly called PX, and used to produce polyester and plastics) in Zhangzhou, Fujian province, required the attention of the Chinese army’s anti-chemical warfare unit and the evacuation of 30,000 people. Continue reading at Forbes Asia here.