No winds of change

Having just come back from Taiwan after a busy week there, I cannot help but express a feeling that the prospects for the DPP in the upcoming presidential elections are low. It’s a feeling partly nurtured by my experience back in 2008 when I closely observed the election campaign and joined the EU delegation visiting Taiwan. This was a sad time for the then ruling party. My friends in the DPP were depressed and had long accepted defeat. Outgoing president Chen Shui-bian was a disastrous liability for the DPP and its candidate Hsieh Chang-ting who fought a losing battle. DPP rallies were as hot and loud as ever, but the median voter stood by unimpressed. Talking to a number of leading DPP figures at the time was odd as they anticipated the result – and some of them were guessing quite correctly how big the gap was going to be between the two contenders. These were the winds of change, and whatever the DPP did to denounce the KMT’s obvious objective to jumpstart a new unification policy after retaking power, most Taiwanese didn’t want to listen.

Four years later, the DPP has regained strength. The new leader, Tsai Ing-wen, has proven to be a blessing for the party, uniting it by striking a deal with the old leadership and dimming down party ideology to pave the way for a proper response to the KMT’s integration course. From the beginning, the opposition was doomed to react and could hardly influence the government’s agenda. There was much to criticize when it came to speed and context of cross-Strait negotiations pushed forward by Ma, but Tsai Ing-wen had to accept that full blown opposition to the KMT’s proactive China policy would be political suicide in the long run; hence the focus on technical details and parliamentary oversight. That is certainly important, but it never could shake the government’s course.

The DPP’s 10 year policy platform, promulgated in late August, was hotly debated by the media until its finalization. After that, it became just another document and has not impacted meaningfully on the public discourse so far. In fact, the DPP’s China policy has been spelled out in rather cryptical terms: “harmony without uniformity, seeking similarity in peace” (he er bu tong, he er qiu tong) corresponds nicely to the Chinese way of breaking complex issues down to catchy slogans, but it explains little in terms of how the DPP could do better than the KMT. My DPP friends have told me that Tsai would be willing to talk to China, that she would be more cautious, more realistic and more successful in protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty and dignity than Ma Ying-jeou. But it is far from clear for many Taiwanese, including those supporting the DPP, how Tsai will find a way around the ‘one China principle’ and the ‘1992 consensus’, both of which she rejects, and still be able to talk to the Chinese authorities if she becomes Taiwan’s next president. Tsai may still be given a chance to try, but only if the alternative – another four years of KMT-led dialogue across the Taiwan Strait, is considered worse. It seems to me that most Taiwanese do not think that way.

Tsai and her DPP thus focus on other issues related to domestic policy in order to win over the median voter: social justice, judicial and educational reform, new policies to protect labour and the environment. These issues matter, but they do not decide an election in Taiwan. Recent surveys promise a close race between the two major contenders and one may think back to 2004 when Chen Shui-bian caught up during the last weeks before the presidential election. It may have been a bullet that ensured him eventual victory, but this veils the fact that the winds of change were also weak at the time. Tight races suggest an advantage for the incumbent in Taiwan, not for the challenger.

Today, Ma Ying-jeou stands firmly enough after four years as president. For a majority of Taiwan’s voters, he is not really a corrupt leader or a maverick whose policies undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty and freedom. He made a silly mistake by advocating a peace agreement agenda for his second administration, but the damage to his campaign seems to be limited. The way for the DPP back to the presidential office is long – too long for now. The median voter is simply not alienated enough from the current government, and the DPP has too little to offer to convince them to switch camps. For a change of government in Taiwan, you need a corrupt incumbent (at least one who is successfully labeled so) or a sentiment of crisis with respect to cross-strait relations. The best prospects for change would be a combination of both, like in 2008. In present-day Taiwan, none of these factors count. Since there are no winds of change, I expect four more years of KMT rule – until I am proven wrong?

Gunter Schubert is Professor and Chair of Greater China Studies, University of Tuebingen.