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

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.