Taiwan 2016 elections are not about China

It is not news that, in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is heading for victory on January 16. She has enjoyed a double-digit lead across all polls throughout the year, and recently crossed the psychological 50-point mark, ahead of her rivals, Eric Chu of the Kuomintang and James Soong of the People First Party. Seasoned Taiwan watchers know to take media polls with a pinch of salt. But the consensus across the political spectrum is that Tsai is a lock, barring something unforeseen.

Unexpected things do happen in Taiwanese elections. In 2000, the then independent Soong was ahead in the polls until the KMT broke a corruption scandal about him. Chen Shui-bian sustained gunshot wounds while campaigning on the eve of his re-election in 2004, which might have swung the vote in his favour. More recently, no one foresaw that Ma Ying-jeou would have a face-to-face meeting with President Xi Jinping (習近平).

If the latter surprise was intended to give the KMT’s election chances a boost, it didn’t work, despite the appealing optics of “the handshake” for the world’s media and the boost it might provide for perceptions outside Taiwan of Ma’s “legacy”. (In Taiwan, the meeting was greeted with anger or apathy.)

The 2016 presidential election is all about Ma and the KMT; Tsai’s big lead does not necessarily reflect huge enthusiasm for the DPP. The KMT’s expected loss in the coming election would reflect widespread discontent with Ma and his party, particularly the outcomes and trajectory of his economic policies. In the past 7½ years that Ma has been in power, the cost of living in Taiwan has steadily risen while wages have barely moved. House prices have increased by 45 per cent, and the price of a Taipei home is now about 16 times the average annual income (it is 7.5 times in Taiwan as a whole). Full article at SCMP

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Political parties in Taiwan: Short intro & annotated reading list

Political parties have played a determining role in the shape and outcome of democratization processes in Taiwan. For much of the early democratization era the KMT was the only party, and much research has focused on the behaviour, composition and evolution of the party. Hood 1997 provides a balanced analysis of the contribution of the KMT to political liberalization, which acknowledges the external pressures on the party and the rise of the Dangwai opposition movement. It is particularly valuable for the insights it gives into the competition within the KMT. Rigger 2001 is the most authoritative account of the growth of the Dangwai and the transformation into the DPP in 1986. Rigger’s detailed and nuanced analysis charts the DPP’s emergence as a major political party, up to the point that Chen Shui-bian won the presidency. Chen’s victory (albeit a minority winner in a three horse race) appeared to mark a turning point in Taiwan’s political history, and (at the time) perhaps the start of the KMT’s decline as has happened to other one party regimes after democratization. The sense of uncertainty comes through in the analysis of the party’s disastrous presidential campaign provided by Hsieh 2001. It is useful to keep this in mind given the KMT’s resurgence in 2008 and predicted futility in 2016: party fortunes are cyclical and long periods of governing are frequently followed by difficult elections and periods in opposition. Despite Chen’s landmark and surprise victory, the DPP was ill equipped to govern, especially in the context of incomplete reforms, divided government and KMT obstructionism, as Wu 2002 demonstrates. The article benefits from being written by a US trained political scientist turned DPP politician who served as Taiwan’s representative to the US under Chen.

The DPP is by far the most successful and enduring of the parties established on Taiwan (i.e. not the KMT which was established in China), outlasting the Chinese New Party, Taiwan Solidarity Union and People First Party among others. Taiwan has evolved into a multi-party democracy, although the parameters of political competition are dominated by the KMT and DPP. As one strand of political science would predict, the two major parties converged on major issues as democratization progressed. Party preferences over time on a range of issues are analysed in the pioneering work of Fell 2005, an indispensable study of party politics, specifically focusing on party positions on various issues across a crucial period in Taiwan’s democratization process. Dense empirical analysis of party materials combined with interviews of party politicians make this the most authoritative work focusing on Taiwanese parties in the 1990s.

However, it is not just issues that differentiate parties or electoral candidates. Bosco 1994 presents a detailed picture of how factions intersect with issues and ideology to affect the mobilization of voters and electoral outcomes. Similarly, Hood 1996discusses the effects of democratization on the behaviour of KMT factions, and the refocusing of factional mobilization on delivering votes. Factions can also influence who is nominated for election, as Fell 2013 and Fell et al. 2014 show in their analyses of how parties select their electoral candidates. Candidate selection processes have changed over time partly in response to changing rules. Lin 2000 (another US trained political scientist turned DPP politician) shows that parties are highly adaptive to changes in the political environment, in particular showing how they have responded to the expansion of electoral competition. Focusing on a different aspect of political parties, Chen 2000 analyses the composition of party support across time, focusing on variables at the voter level across three different generations.

For much of Taiwan’s political history since 1945, the Legislative Yuan has been a marginal political institution. With democratization, the disbanding of the obsolete National Assembly and constitutional reforms, the Legislature has become much more influential. As the DPP found to its cost, controlling the legislature is a crucial source of power for a party wanting to implement or block a policy agenda. The transformation of the Legislature (from “rubber stamp” to “roaring lion”) is captured by Liao 2005, a historical analysis of the institution from 1950 to 2000. The relationship of the Legislature to other branches of government, and the nature of Taiwan’s political system, is not totally clear-cut, as Kucera 2002 shows.

The incomplete reforms enacted in the mid-1990s created great difficulties under conditions of divided government after 2000. Liao and Chien 2005 explore these difficulties with a close examination of the ROC Constitution. In addition to the Legislature’s position within the political system, another research interest concerns legislative elections and the electoral system used to elect legislators. Nathan 1993 analyzes the first non-supplementary election in 1992 while Chu and Diamond 1999 assess the effects of the 1998 legislative election on the consolidation of democracy. Of particular interest to Taiwan scholars and comparative political scientists, has been the SNTV electoral system, which was in effect prior to 2008, making Taiwan the last polity in the world to use it. Tsai 2005 focuses on the effects of SNTV on party strategy with regard to policy positions and factions while Hsieh and Niemi 1999 looks at the systemic effects of SNTV. Legislative elections since 2008, when the number of seats available was also halved, have taken place under the new and supposedly fairer MMD system. O’Neill 2013 assesses this supposition by comparing the performance of the DPP under the new and old systems. Bibliography here

Democratization in Taiwan: A short introduction and bibliography

In the second half of the 20th Century, Taiwan evolved from a colonial backwater under one-party rule to become an exemplar of equal economic development and peaceful democratization. During the past thirty years elections have constituted important milestones and strongly contested political competition to control resources, implement policy agendas and set the ideological tone. In January 2016, Taiwan will hold its latest set of presidential and legislative elections. Taiwan is a polity where core issues like “who are we” and “where are we going” have yet to be decided. Befitting such a polity, Taiwan 2016 will be fiercely contested and the outcomes will have major implications beyond the Taiwanese political scene. In anticipation of these elections, and drawing on work I have done separately for the Oxford Bibliographies in Chinese Studies project, I will be posting a number of annotated reading lists on various aspects of Taiwanese democracy, the first being democratization.

Democratization processes in Taiwan proceeded incrementally over a prolonged period punctuated by electoral milestones. Although generally peaceful, political liberalization required significant effort on the part of activists and the opposition movement to pressure the ruling KMT into adopting reforms. Concessions by the KMT were soon followed by further demands from the opposition, generating momentum towards democratization that eventually overwhelmed conservative elements within the party. In 1986, opposition activists with disparate concerns and interests came together to form the Democratic Progressive Party, the first organized opposition party. To do so was technically illegal under Martial Law, but the DPP was allowed to field candidates in the 1986 Legislative election and Martial Law was rescinded a year later. Following the death of President Chiang Ching-kuo in 1988 Lee Teng-hui was selected by the KMT to be interim President. He was officially elected to the Presidency, not by universal suffrage but by the rubber-stamp National Assembly in 1990, the final time that the ROC President would fail to be chosen by universal suffrage.

After a protracted struggle between relatively conservative and reform-minded factions within the KMT, which resulted in the formation of the breakaway Chinese New Party (NP), President Lee accelerated both the indigenization of the KMT and democratic reform, including bowing to widespread demands, the Wild Lily student movement for instance, for the President to be chosen by direct election. Lee himself later became the first ROC president to be elected by popular vote in 1996. A DPP candidate, Chen Shui-bian, won the presidency in 2000, marking the first change in ruling parties. Political competition in democratic Taiwan is intense. Major parties are well organized and highly motivated. By the standards of many consolidated democracies, the electorate in Taiwan is highly engaged. The media environment is well developed and relatively free, and civil society actors are politically involved. Support for democracy remains strong and widespread at the individual level. In short, on several salient indicators, Taiwan’s democracy is a success story, despite continuing concerns about corruption, media ownership and inequalities and inefficiencies within the political system. In the existing scholarship on Taiwan’s democratic transition and democratic practice, debates continue around the extent to which democratization was led by top-down or bottom up processes, the extent to which Taiwan’s democracy “works” or whether it is uniquely susceptible to political crises, and the issue of how to enjoy the fruits of democratization in the shadow of a complex relationship with China.

There are several valuable accounts that put the democratization period in historical perspective. Bruce Jacobs (2012)provides a concise but authoritative analytical account of the democratization processes from the origins of Taiwanese resistance to the Japanese colonialists to Ma Ying-jeou’s first term. Linda Chao and Ramon Myers (1998) is a similarly careful historical study of the Martial Law period and analysis of the initiation and development of democratization processes. The treatment of the emergence of the opposition movement and movements within the KMT which in combination created pressures for reform is particularly strong. Denny Roy’s (2003) Political History provides a concise and useful (albeit less sophisticated) chronological account of Taiwan’s political development. Mikael Mattlin (2011) is a close examination of the political reform process in which the ruling KMT attempted to lock-in certain institutional advantages that would serve it after the transition and ensure continued social politicization. If you have access to a university library, the four volumes of The Politics of Modern Taiwan (2008), a collection of seminal papers on various topics relating to Taiwanese politics, are the closest thing the field has to a dedicated Handbook.

The processes that constituted and advanced democratization in Taiwan took place over a prolonged period of time and involved bottom-up, top-down and external forces. The contribution of bottom-up “democratic forces” is well covered in Cheng (1989), an influential article that went beyond then-prevailing explanations of Taiwan’s democratization rooted in economic modernization theory. Winckler (1984) on the other hand surveys debates and developments within the ruling KMT as it faced external challenges and domestic pressures. It is an excellent analysis of manoeuvres and preferences within the KMT and the pressures and resistance to political liberalization among the “gerontocratic-authoritarian” regime. Tien (1975) provides a detailed contemporaneous account of KMT thought and strategy on political liberalization at a time of crisis for the regime. The collection edited by Cheng and Haggard (1992) has good coverage of the transition from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ authoritarianism. Most chapters focus on political developments in the 1980s and provide then-pioneering empirical detail and theoretical work on regime change.

Chu 1992, a landmark examination of political liberalization in the early democratization era, provides sophisticated reflections on the nature of political reforms undertaken by the KMT. Chu Yun-han is probably Taiwan’s pre-eminent political scientist, and he combines rich empirical detail with sophisticated explication of a number of theoretical frameworks. Chu and Lin (2001) examine the close, perhaps inextricable, links between democratization and national identity. This important article establishes the continuities between the two “émigré regimes”, the Japanese and the KMT, that dominated Twentieth Century Taiwan, providing a compelling explanation for the evolution of each. The edited volume Feldman and Nathan (1991) presents the views of numerous DPP and KMT politicians on the nature of political reforms particularly in the 1980s. The analysis of Taiwanese society, and attempt to explain both the high and equitable growth rates and socio-political stability that characterized the ‘economic miracle’, presented in Gold 1986 is the essential backdrop to developments on the political scene (for more on the rapid growth era, see also Wade 1990).

By the start of the 1990s, much progress had been made towards democratization. The KMT had (willingly or because it had little choice) loosened its grip on civil society and the media, allowed opposition political parties to form and contest a growing range of public offices put to electoral competition. Chao and Myers (1994) investigate the KMT’s reform policies which led to the progressive opening up of political space and electoral offices from the mid- 1980s onwards. Tien and Chu (1996) similarly focus on the KMT, particularly the run up and implications of the first full legislative election in 1992. A stylized version of the KMT’s own liberalization narrative, for domestic and external consumption, was that enlightened leaders Chiang Ching-kuo and Lee Teng-hui were committed to democratic reforms. Leng and Lin (1993)provide an early challenge to the KMT’s top-down liberalization narrative, noting the contribution of opposition activism in pressuring the ruling party. This article is an adept study of the complexities of identifying the causes of democratization.

Noble (1999) provides a detailed and incisive analysis of the important revisions made to the constitution under Lee Teng-hui’s presidency in the mid-1990s, focusing on the need for and consequences of the new arrangements. The machinations over constitutional reforms in 1997 suggest that common political concerns, such as strategy and self-interest, were dominant motivations. Rigger (2001) demonstrates that elections weren’t just symbols of progress, but were crucial mechanisms for coalescing and concentrating support for democratization within society, and inculcating the attitudes and norms that provided the momentum for Taiwan to consolidate its transition. Finally, Lin et al (1996) investigate how elections changed the nature of inter- and intra-party political competition, and in particular the effect this had on how the national identity cleavage would affect political competition after democratization.

The next instalment will focus on the presidency.

Gearing up for Taiwan 2016

Leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) will meet in Beijing on Monday to exchange opinions on “issues of mutual concern.” At the top of the list will be the KMT’s prospects for presidential and legislative elections scheduled for January 2016, and contingencies should the KMT lose.

Xi Jinping and Eric Chu’s summit is the first between respective party leaders since 2009. It comes a year on from the first face-to-face meeting of official representatives of the governments of the People’s Republic of China (PRC, hereafter China) and the Republic of China (ROC, hereafter Taiwan) for several decades.

That symbolic breakthrough was the last dose of positive news for the KMT and the Ma Ying-jeou administration. President Ma, who stepped down as KMT Chairman in December following devastating losses in local elections in November, has witnessed a wave of social protests, a student occupation of the legislature and the demise of an economic agreement with China that was intended to be the keystone policy of his second and final term.

The depth of Taiwanese people’s disapproval of President Ma has severely damaged the KMT’s chances of retaining the presidency. The scrimmage to succeed him has exposed a lack of viable candidates and the escalation of factional battles and grim succession politics raises the specter of splits that have historically afflicted the party. Not only does the KMT face the impending loss of the presidency, there is a chance that the China-leaning Pan Blue alliance in which it is the major partner may lose control of the legislature for the first time. It is a prospect that should provide plenty for Chu and Xi to ruminate on.

The CCP and KMT have a long and tangled history and the contemporary impasse over Taiwan’s status and its relationship with China is to a great extent a legacy of ideological (and at times bloody) battles between the two parties. In recent years, the two old adversaries have discovered common ground—as they did many years ago in the fight against Japanese imperialism. Both oppose “Taiwan independence” and both believe that increased economic interactions are inevitable and good for Taiwan.

For some among the KMT, and unanimously in the CCP, the hope and expectation is that economic interaction will draw the two sides together, facilitating eventual political union. The common ground between the CCP and KMT is embodied in the shared endorsement, if not understanding, of the so-called “1992 Consensus” (“one China, separate interpretations”). This face-saving conceit has proven useful as the basis for the détente policies of the last seven years. It has also ossified as the major distinction between the DPP and KMT. Since China’s bottom line is acceptance of the one China principle and the DPP rejects the “1992 Consensus,” the KMT portrays itself as the only party that can deal with China—simultaneously Taiwan’s most important economic partner and an existential threat.

Given the KMT’s current weaknesses in other sectors (like the economy, previously a strength), the party will try to increase the salience of cross-Strait relations in the run up to the 2016 elections. Chu’s meeting with CCP general secretary and Chinese president Xi Jinping helps that cause.

The KMT has attacked the DPP’s traditional blind spot on China policy to a greater or lesser extent during every presidential election campaign. Seeking reelection in 2012, President Ma scored points by attacking Tsai Ing-wen’s untested “Taiwan consensus.” In light of that defeat, the DPP launched a party-wide drive to address the perceived weakness of their China policy.

The heterogeneity of positions across the party meant that the ultimate policy recommendations did not radically differ from the “Taiwan consensus” (which urges caution in cross-Strait affairs and establishing bipartisan agreement and supervision before pursuing further economic policies with China). However, Tsai, who has again secured the DPP’s nomination, appears much more confident in her understanding and delivery of the DPP’s position.

At a party meeting in April, Tsai expressed her support for “maintaining the status quo” and “stability in cross-Strait relations,” remarks that won praise from officials in the United States. Earlier this week, though, President Ma used a long address to the Mainland Affairs Council to question how Tsai expects to achieve these goals while rejecting the “one China” principle and “1992 Consensus.” Tsai’s response should provide food for thought for Chu and Xi as they meet in Beijing: the Taiwanese people, she said, do not share Ma’s preoccupation with the intricacies of the “1992 Consensus” because they are too busy worrying about a swathe of economic and social ills.

If Tsai’s moderate rhetoric is sufficient to convince the electorate (and opinion polls suggest it is) that the DPP’s China policy won’t be a dangerous liability, the KMT has nothing left to fight with. Outside of championing the “1992 Consensus,” the KMT is bereft of ideas. Continue reading

What next for the KMT?

A calamitous performance in Saturday’s local elections confirmed 2014 as an annus horribilis for the Kuomintang (KMT) and its Chairman Ma Ying-jeou. The embattled Ma signaled on Tuesday that he is ready to give in to calls to relinquish his chairmanship of the party. Many of his lieutenants have already beaten him to the exit. Ma has just over a year remaining until he is constitutionally obliged to stand down as president and many colleagues and supporters are counting down the days until he leaves office, taking (they hope) his toxic approval ratings with him. Hamstrung by widespread opposition to economic policies that have not yielded promised results and predicated on rapprochement with China that has moved too far and too quickly for most Taiwanese, the prospects for Ma’s policy agenda are dim. The salient question for the remainder of Ma’s tenure is this: how much damage will he inflict on the KMT’s chances of rebounding in national elections scheduled for early 2016?

However, in their enthusiasm to rationalize their performance in the “9-in-1” elections – the first time that nine different elections at local levels were combined into a single voting day – Ma’s colleagues would do well to look beyond scapegoating the outgoing president. The fact is the KMT’s woes run deeper than the unpopular president. With its gerontocracy and princelings, the party has lost touch with the electorate, neglecting its changing demographics and preoccupations. The extent of their estrangement should have been clear in the spring, when two years of large-scale popular protests culminated in students occupying the legislature for three weeks. Inexplicably, the party that had once skillfully adapted from authoritarian rule to democratic competition failed to heed the warnings. Even as changes in Taiwanese society became increasingly obvious, the KMT clung to its traditional electoral playbook of using vastly superior financial resources to run negative campaigns and leveraging long nurtured local networks. Although these tactics have worked well in the past, they failed to connect with voters in a rapidly changing post-Sunflower era. This is particularly true of younger voters who are the most alienated of all thanks to stagnant wages, poor job prospects and rising property costs.

Continue reading here.