Is Taiwanese politics becoming boring?

It used to be great fun watching Taiwanese politics. For Northern Europeans, accustomed to business-as-usual parliamentary democracy, Taiwanese politics had a lot of excitement to it: parliamentarians throwing tea cups and fists at each other in the plenum, people prostrating on the ground and crying hysterically, fireworks, horns and what not. Yet, this time around, the election campaigns seem to be rather bland, at least so far.

Has something changed in Taiwanese political culture? Taiwanese politics used to be highly contentious and society strongly politicized. There are a number of underlying structural reasons for this. Politicization, popular interest and participation in politics reached a zenith during Chen Shui-bian’s second term in office, when a vicious battle for control of the political system raged between the two main political camps. After the 2004 presidential election, the DPP had its best shot yet at dismantling the KMT’s structural dominance, although eventually, these efforts failed, and the DPP was for some time left in the doldrums.

The popular enthusiasm on display in Taiwanese politics is nowhere more evident than in its ubiquitous mass rallies—zaoshi wanhui (造勢晚會). Taiwanese political parties regularly used to be able to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people for various political mass activities, especially before and around presidential elections. The height of this battle-by-mass-rally political culture occurred around the years 2004–06 that saw a number of massive rallies attract people in the high hundreds of thousands. Some events even drew millions of people, such as the “hand-in-hand rally” organised by the pan-greens before the 2004 presidential election and a counter-rally by the pan-blues two weeks later. Post-election, the losing political team topped up by organising a week-long demonstration stand-off outside of the presidential offices.

There are, of course, a number of election rallies planned now as well: the DPP is reportedly aiming to organise some 30–40 mass rallies with at least 50,000 supporters attending each of these, while the KMT went all-out in securing permission to hold mass rallies on the highly symbolic Ketagalan boulevard in Taipei on 12–13 January, just before polling day. Nonetheless, the level of enthusiasm appears to have declined from previous years.

Undoubtedly, one reason for this relative lack of popular interest this time is that on the most contentious issues concerning identity and Cross-Strait relations, the main candidates have been circumspect, even ambiguous. These issues have previously shown themselves to be double-edged swords to politicians. Consequently, both of the main candidates, Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen, have threaded cautiously on them. The role of political parties has been crucial in organising political mass action in Taiwan. It is therefore unsurprising that when leading politicians avoid the use of these contentious issues as mobilising tools, this results in less popular participation.

Whether or not Taiwan experiences a return to the days of competitive mobilising of people power to sway the political balance, partly depends on the two political parties again becoming more evenly matched, also in the legislature, and the DPP taking a second shot at breaking the KMT’s structural lock-hold on power. However, it is not at all certain that ordinary voters will put up with another protracted and divisive power struggle. The scars from previous battles are still raw.

Dr Mikael Mattlin is a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. His recently published book on Taiwanese politics is titled Politicized Society: The Long Shadow of Taiwan’s One-Party Legacy (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2011).

[I will post a review of Mikael’s book here soon; it is excellent and highly recommended. Jon]