On separate occasions earlier this year in London, I had the opportunity to ask former premier Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) and former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) about the party’s future policies in the municipalities and counties, and whether the north-south electoral divide could be mitigated through an explicit regional and urban policy package that might be a core element for the DPP agenda in the 2016 presidential and legislative election battles. In both cases I received pretty limpid responses.
At the time of writing it seems that the nine-in-one elections would see a significant change in the political color of Taiwan’s localities, with great swings toward the DPP and independent candidates, and a very large 70 percent turnout. Things seem pretty “green.”
If opposition to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government is to strengthen and become more coherent prior to the 2016 elections, then the DPP and others need to sit back from the carnival and spectacle and ponder what has happened and how to benefit in the longer run. Can this seeming surge against the KMT’s governance be converted into electoral victory at the national level?
What explains the present swing?
First, there is the normal “midterm effect” found in many democratic electorates — people voting for one party for national elections, then in midterm favoring opposition candidates in local or other elections. Many voters believe that they should try to manage a balancing act between major parties. It is not clear how strong that general effect was in this particular case.
Second, a more salient element must be the politicization of youth in recent months, not only in the Sunflower movement protests, but in various nuclear and environmental disputes throughout the year. Many of these might have been first-time voters in Saturday’s elections, choosing to voice their protest through the ballot box; others might well have supported the KMT in the 2012 election, but now have come out vigorously in support of opposition candidates.
Chang Hsin-hsin (張心心), a Taiwanese student of mine now studying political science at the University of Sussex in the UK, has argued that independent voters are emerging — people who refuse to stay hostage to the blue-green ideology that domestic issues cannot be decided without resolving first the issue of unification or independence. Chang also believes that the old electoral strategies of “attacking and teasing” have been abandoned in favor of greater discussion and analysis, a direct product of the recent student-led unrest.
Third, the result may have been very strongly influenced by the presence of some really excellent candidates whose backgrounds and party positions or independence made them at once interesting and seemingly more trustworthy (less likely corrupt) than many established party candidates.
In the light of recent political scandals, as well as the surge of interest and information regarding complicity and complexity in the use of advisory funds, the lack of attendance records and direct availability of legislative proceedings, resulting from recent exposures by academics, citizen groups and the Citizen Congress Watch, this factor may have been of greater importance than ever before in Taiwan.
Candidates who could show political cleanliness or distinctiveness were more likely to gain support in this atmosphere. Two outstanding examples of this effect seem to have been the cases of Yunlin County Commissioner Su Chih-fen (蘇治芬) and independent Taipei mayor-elect Ko Wen-je (柯文哲).
The first is of particular interest in that an earlier attempt to prove financial corruption seems to have backfired, possibly as a result of exemplary behavior that can be witnessed directly at the local level. The second is of interest because of Ko’s success in distancing himself from the intricacies of the cross-strait issue and exposing an appealing naivety, giving the electorate the image of him abandoning his white medical coat in order to “tear down the wall dividing residents with different backgrounds and build a city filled with love.” This is not normal party-line politics and seems to exclude even the possibility of corruption during his administration.
Any combination of these possible effects might explain most of the result, although there remain minor imponderables — what was the electoral impact of Ma’s off-hand arrogance in divorcing awful local infrastructure disasters (especially the Greater Kaohsiung gas pipeline explosions) from anything much to do with national governance by the KMT?
So we are left with a version of my initial query: How might DPP national policies on regional or local development and problems — from infrastructure to environment and overcrowding — have influenced the result? Or has the KMT simply not produced enough in the way of local reform policies that might redress problems of corruption, pollution, lack of good jobs for young people in their localities, insufficient infrastructure investment and thus rising costs for small firms, etc?
Because there seems to be no clear discussion of such questions, it is possible that the DPP will sit on this result as the KMT lick its wounds.
Just because there are so many possible factors at work, the present effect could be very temporary or transitional, and if the liberal opposition wishes to succeed it must enter the debate on localities and their future far more fully, offering progressive positions on major concerns — how might there be a greater devolution of governance, population, new jobs and middle-class prosperity away from Taipei and toward the other great cities, as well as greater funding of rural infrastructures and environmental projects?
Should there not be more policy statements that explicitly and clearly are designed to address economic, environmental, infrastructural, housing, health and demographic issues within more integrated approaches?
For instance, there is huge evidence throughout the world that technological efficiency and industrial productivity increase in environments that are healthy, embracing, exciting and challenging, where people commonly walk and sit as well as drive and ride. Many of Taiwan’s cities have lovely spaces where great numbers of people run, dance and play as well as converse and argue. Some city campuses are hives of discussion and debate. Small shopkeepers do their best to tend their potted plants and repair their crazy sidewalks.
Such community self-help is healthy, but national governance cannot free-ride on it for ever. The population is getting older, students are increasingly alienated within urban campuses given low-level employment prospects and businesspeople rush to their small private spaces for renewed doses of air-conditioning.
Globally, politics is increasingly centered not on national governance, but on the two extremes of global systems and local institutions. The role of future governments in all developed nations will entail working out how these two very different aspects of reality and identity might be merged into something that is progressive and innovative. Localities can be the well-springs of the good life.
However, if nation states do not act to help this process transparently and thoughtfully, then the space for the nation state, and its reputation among citizens, will continue to shrink. Taiwan can never escape this process.
The DPP and all liberal elements that have benefitted in the recent elections must act now to embrace the local and the urban — east and west — fully within national politics, see that cultural, industrial and social policies might come together within locales, and develop discussion and action forums that affirm transparency and honesty.
It might not be possible thereby to invent lots of Ko Wen-je type politicians and activists, but it might begin to take seriously the seeming optimism and democratic urges exhibited by citizens in the recent elections.
Ian Inkster is a professorial research associate at SOAS, University of London, and professor of global history in the Department of International Affairs, Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, in Greater Kaohsiung.
Beijing’s imposition of the Hong Kong National Security Law and a number of other democratic and human rights issues continue to strain relations between the UK and China. The tense situation has significantly decreased the likelihood of British Royal Navy ships being able to continue their practice of docking in Hong Kong’s harbor for resupply — a not altogether unpredictable development. In a Nov. 19 online speech to parliament, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier would next year lead a British and allied task group to the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and East Asia. Johnson
President-elect Biden and his team soon will confront a raging pandemic, a severe economic crisis, demands for progress in addressing racial injustices, intensifying climate-induced crises, and strained relations with allies and partners in many parts of the world. They will be oriented to view China as America’s greatest geostrategic challenge, but not the most immediate threat to the health and prosperity of the American people. Amidst this daunting inheritance, US-Taiwan relations will stand out as a bright spot, an example of progress that should be sustained. There are strong reasons for optimism about the continued development of US-Taiwan relations in the
Universities and colleges are bearing the brunt of Taiwan’s falling birthrate. Many schools have already closed down, while lower-ranking institutions find themselves in a precarious position. The Ministry of Education has said that more than 40 private senior-high schools, universities and colleges are already in a critical situation. When schools are forced to close, the impact is felt not just by students, who can easily transfer to other schools, but even more so by teachers and other staff, for whom it is hard to change track in the middle of their careers. A Cabinet meeting on Nov. 19 approved a draft
I was probably the first professor in Taiwan to teach a university-level food safety class and a postgraduate food toxicology course. During the administration of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), I participated in discussions to allow imports of US beef containing traces of ractopamine, and was part of the decision to permit imports of US pork containing the leanness-enhancing additive. I am not an expert on ractopamine, as I have never done any research on the drug, but I have taught classes about the health dangers of foods containing traces of harmful substances. When US beef imports were about to be allowed,