Shih Ming-teh (施明德), the figurehead of the “red shirts” protests in 2006 to force then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to step down, has organized an online campaign that he calls “My heart is still alive” (我心未死) and aims to collect 100,000 signatures. Shih says the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are in a state of stagnation and decay, that politicians are self-serving, and wonders why the public should only have a choice between bad and worse as they grudgingly vote. He has named former United Microelectronics Corp chairman Robert Tsao (曹興誠), former DPP chairman Lin I-hsiung (林義雄), and media personality Sisy Chen (陳文茜) as the best choices for president, and hopes that they will be persuaded to run for the position if the campaign can collect 100,000 signatures. Shih’s move seems to have caused some anxiety in the KMT, because they think the campaign will affect the party’s voter support.
Several Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) officials had the same idea during the last legislative elections. Opinion polls at the time showed that 30 percent of the electorate were displeased with both the KMT and the DPP, and the TSU thought it could attract these swing voters by choosing the middle way, still winning 15 percent of the vote if it attracted only half of them. In the end, however, most of these votes still went to the KMT and the DPP.
Voters in advanced democracies look at particular candidates, their political views and the image of their party. If both the two biggest parties are “bad apples,” a third force is easily formed. It is just that Taiwan is different in that Taiwanese don’t necessarily vote for a candidate based on these conditions. Maybe Shih has never noticed that many people support the KMT’s candidates not because they identify with the party, but out of a social obligation.
During his presidency, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) was able to control local factions and was thereby able to secure local support for the KMT with the help of their vote captains. At the time, the KMT had a commanding grip over the political scene, and opposition politicians had to create political awareness to break the vote captains’ hold on the local level. Mobilizing people without the backing of a party was no mean feat, however, so for a long time politics remained a one horse race. It was difficult for a second political force to develop, and even more so for a third force.
The democratization of politics in Taiwan saw the rise of infighting within the KMT’s local factions, and the weave of their grassroots support gradually unraveled. The DPP was able to attract sections of the electorate that identify with the party’s ideological stance and also managed to nurture its own vote captains to draw votes away from the former lords of the manor. Gradually, it has grown in power. That’s not to say all voters who drift away from the KMT head in the direction of the DPP. In many cases they become swing voters between the two parties. As mentioned above, this by no means indicate that they will go running into the open arms of a third, newly emerging force.
The KMT and the DPP may be bad apples, as Shih asserts, but for blue or green diehards, they are both “our” bad apples. These voters will remain loyal regardless. Moreover, grassroots supporters of either party don’t necessarily agree with Shih’s assessment. As far as they are concerned, there is nothing wrong with their apple. Shih may have led the red shirts, but their only common ground was a wish to force Chen to step down. He did not identify with their political ideals.
Almost 50 percent of the electorate in Taiwan are under the sway of vote captains and political ideology. Sure, the rest is theoretically there for the taking for a third force, but only if it can come up with something new to offer them. One could name a few things: environmental concerns and ecological conservation, cultural issues, education — but what uniquely qualifies the three people Shih has put forward to champion those things?
What is it about Shih’s choices that suggests they will be able to break the culture of stagnation and decay he accuses the two main parties of having? What guarantees does he offer that his recommendations are no less “self-serving”? As they are trying to attract the voters that have turned their backs on vote captains and ideology, they will face the same problems the TSU did when it tried to attract the voters that had rejected both the KMT and the DPP.
The vast majority of voters believe that there is only one “bad apple” and are willing to accept the other party. Some are actually willing to accept either. As for Shih’s suggested candidates, most people don’t really know that much about them. Sometimes it’s a case of “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
In the past, Shih was seen as a hero, but he no longer has anything like the kind of following he used to have. Yes, he still has his eyes set on grand things, but that does not mean he will be able to achieve them. The crucial thing is that he doesn’t have the ability to regain that following and is unlikely to ascend to the heights he achieved in 2006.
Chen Mao-hsiung is a former professor at National Sun Yat-sen University.
TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON AND PAUL COOPER
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