The Liberty Times Editorial: The warning from the ballot box

Tue, Nov 27, 2018 - Page 8

The results of Saturday’s nine-in-one elections and the referendums handed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which holds the presidency and a legislative majority, heavy losses. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has resigned as party chairperson and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has made considerable gains. Most concerning is that China has proven to itself that the Internet can be a powerful weapon to meddle in Taiwan’s elections.

The way the elections were organized was symptomatic of the wider reasons behind the DPP’s shellacking.

Ten referendums were held alongside the elections. With the thresholds for holding referendums being eased, their number exploded, each one a long-winded, difficult-to-understand proposal, which made voting time-consuming and chaotic.

The Central Election Commission failed to organize the process properly, leading to overly long lines, with people having to wait for extended periods of time, leading to scenes of bored people standing in line watching TV on their mobile devices.

These unusual scenes in front of polling stations were indicative of the divide between the authorities and the public they are there to serve: predictable situations were allowed to occur and voters became increasingly restless.

The congestion was not only seen at isolated polling stations. In the same way, the loss of support for the DPP could be seen in many cities and counties nationwide, speaking to discontentment with its governance.

To be fair, the DPP’s losses are hardly inconsistent with the fortunes of a ruling party in mid-term elections.

In the past two years, the Tsai administration has made headway in areas of the economy, social issues and national defense. The trouble is, the pace and implementation of its reform agenda have been problematic, the government has not fully followed through on its campaign promises and it has made some questionable political appointees.

It has fallen short of the public’s expectations. This has led to anger among the people hit by the reforms, such that they have taken to the streets, while at the same time leaving the party’s core supporters disappointed in its performance, making them feel disinclined to vote, in the same way that low morale among KMT voters kept them away from voting four years ago.

It seems that the central government, with its legislative dominance, and DPP-held local governments, with their long-term hold on power, have allowed complacency to creep in, just as they have allowed themselves to become out of touch with the general public. The result is that people have turned away.

From the results it seems clear that the Tsai administration has trod on a few too many toes over the past two years, creating an anti-DPP sentiment and dynamic — grievances that were expressed at the ballot box.

It might be true that a reform agenda will always ruffle the feathers of vested interests, but that can only partially explain what has happened.

For example, pension reform was always going to rile those who stood to have their pensions reduced, but the government’s less than sure-footed approach gave anti-reform groups time to unite and caused frustration among those supporting reform, leaving both sides angry and frustrated.

Then there was the “one fixed day off and one flexible rest day” amendment to the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法). This was, in principle, a laudable change in that it guaranteed employees two days off per week.

However, the disruptive and inflexible way it was introduced required several revisions, leaving employers and employees annoyed and leading to economic and social implications. This was reflected in the election results.

A similar thing happened with the marriage equality issue. Tsai made same-sex marriage a campaign pledge, and the government, once in power, proposed a bill only to shelve it when faced with strong opposition.

This led to frustration among supporters on both sides, with the younger generation seeing it as a bounced check. After that, the battle raged on with proposals for competing referendums.

The DPP lost the support of the public in two short years, not simply because of its failure to get reform legislation through, but also because of the chaotic approach it has taken. For this, it was punished on Saturday.

When looking for the cause, one cannot discount the ideological roots of the “progressive conundrum.”

The party named itself after the dual goals of being democratic and progressive. For more than three decades it has made a considerable contribution not only to democratization, but also to the promotion and realization of human rights and equality.

For this reason, the electorate has bequeathed it two stints in power. That said, when the DPP has been given the reins, it descends into a progressive conundrum, the labor law reforms being the most substantial example.

Any progressive society should strive toward increasing labor rights, protecting the environment and reducing the gap between rich and poor. However, these goals have to be viewed within the context of national socio-economic circumstances. They need to be implemented efficiently, not rashly.

The “boldly go west” policy of industrial relocation to China left Taiwan overly reliant on Beijing, both politically and economically. The DPP’s answer was to encourage more investment in Taiwanese industry and to deregulate, shrink government regulations and reduce taxes to increase international competitiveness.

If the nation could reduce its economic reliance on China and if the government could promote industrial development in Taiwan, then the progressive agenda could be achieved.

However, this approach was based on the progressive conundrum, and has done little to improve the situation.

The DPP tried to stimulate the economy, but that was only ever going to do it any good if the economic benefits were felt by ordinary people.

It is important to emphasize that these elections were essentially about Taiwan’s internal matters and local governments, and yet there is general agreement within the international community that China directly interfered, using the Internet.

For example, the New York Times wrote that China has been employing “a Russia-style influence campaign” to meddle, using a new arsenal of cyberweapons, including fake news.

This is only going to get worse. Politicians on both sides of the aisle ignore this at the nation’s peril.

The situation of the DPP — with its complete hold on government, losing the hearts and minds of Taiwanese in short two years in office, and its rout on Saturday — is a warning to all parties.

The DPP needs to take a good look at itself and change accordingly, while the KMT must follow through on its candidates’ campaign promises.

The public is a fickle mistress, and both the ruling and opposition parties must give her the respect she demands. This is, after all, what democracy is all about.

Translated by Paul Cooper