The 1980s saw the US Republican Party in ascendance, with neo-conservatism under then-US president Ronald Reagan, followed by president George H.W. Bush, who won widespread popularity during the First Persian Gulf War. It took the US Democratic Party 12 years to gradually emerge from the cloud of defeatism it had been under.
In 1989, former US president Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, backed by the Democratic Leadership Council, united various members of Congress and state governors and established the Progressive Policy Institute. This institute galvanized progressive society, including academics, experts and civic groups, to reject dogmatic left-right approaches to politics, re-evaluate what the Democrats stood for and propose policy issues that motivated people, such as health reform, new creative industries and children’s education.
Clinton’s reform of the Democratic Party was known as the New Democrat Movement. His successful campaign against Bush in 1992 was famously summed up in the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid.” The key to the Democratic Party’s reform was getting congress and local government to work together and in getting wider social participation. Clinton was able to lift the Democrats out of the doldrums and capture the imagination of the electorate by proposing issues that had progressive values.
It seems that, since the end of Taiwan’s presidential election in January, there has been a sense of general dissatisfaction with the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), coupled with an antipathy for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The government seems to be suffering from “re-election fatigue” even before President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has officially started his second term, earning the public’s ire with its prevarications and a series of price hikes. For its part, the DPP has failed to respond as quickly as it should to the KMT’s moves, or to fulfill its most important obligation as the main opposition party — that of providing checks and balances to the government.
The race for the DPP chairmanship officially started last week, with five registered candidates. Their proposals on how they intend to revamp the party will affect not just who ultimately wins the chairmanship, but also future interactions between the government and opposition, and indeed the balance of politics in Taiwan in the coming years.
During the early years of the DPP’s establishment, it was able to bring up issues of progressive values at crucial moments, whether the debate was on democratic reform or social justice. The party owes its very existence to this championing of progressive values, which saw it go from being a dangwai — outside the KMT — movement to an opposition political party to the governing party.
Now that it is about to enter its second four-year stint as the opposition, the party needs to open itself up and become more involved with the different forces of society, be they civic groups or academics. This is the only way it can make up for the paucity of its discourse over the past years, and enable it once again to influence the agenda.
Hopefully, this chairmanship election will focus on how to transform the DPP into a more modern political force, and not descend into a proxy war between different elements within the party. This country needs a robust opposition to prevent the unraveling of democracy. This is what the DPP should aim to do over the next two years.