One year and eight months after Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) became president and two years after the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a resounding majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan for the first time, the party appears to be coping fairly well with the stressors of power and has, as yet, not befallen a major scandal of governance which might fatally undermine the public’s perception of its competence in government or its electability.
It has in part been aided by a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) yet to recover from the catastrophic helmsmanship of former chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), the limp and fading electoral appeal of its former upcoming star New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫), and the mundane, ineffectual and passe leadership of old-guard Chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義).
With no coherent or appealing policy platform to offer, the party’s public image is of an organization that devotes itself to hagiography for former president Chiang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) party-state, desperate attempts to protect its illegal assets, stunts in lieu of substantive opposition in the legislature, and predictable victim blaming of Tsai for Chinese tantrums and provocations against Taiwan.
Its most exciting moment recently was the debate as to whether Chiang’s grandson KMT Legislator Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安) would abandon his legislative seat to run for Taipei mayor this year.
It is a party utterly stuck in its own ideological straitjacket, increasingly disconnected from the reality of the newer generations of voters, and so weak and lacking direction or relevance that even parody now feels cruel.
If the KMT makes gains in the upcoming municipal and county elections in November, unless Bade Road radically changes the brand, it will largely be despite the national party, not because of it.
In Taiwan, local politics has its own distinctive dynamic and the KMT could take back some of its own heartland towns and cities, particularly in the center and north, especially given that it still maintains strong party networks in the townships.
However, it cannot assume that it will be able to use that in 2020 the way the DPP was able to between 2014 and 2016.
The rise of the New Power Party (NPP) in the legislative elections in 2016 to become, at first attempt, the third largest party and the second largest opposition party was surprising, but not entirely unprecedented in Taiwanese elections — remember the New Party in the 1990s.
For the NPP, its main challenges are differentiating itself from the DPP, finding a slate of strong, appealing candidates to run at the local level this year and at the national level in 2020, and building a public image of a principled, consistent and easily understood opposition party within the Legislative Yuan — one that effectively holds the DPP and the government to account.
Its performance thus far in respect of those goals appears to have been moderate, but is moving in a positive direction, despite a failed recall referendum for NPP Execitive Chairman Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌).
If the party maintains momentum and builds a more solid and sustainable voter base in November, it would have good reason to feel it could supplant the KMT at the national level in the 2020 elections.
For the DPP, this would be both welcome and a threat.
One of the DPP’s biggest problems lies in its name. It is a self-styled “progressive” party, but how progressive is it?
It could be argued this is an issue of semantics and a question of cultural and political relativity.
For example, a major and ruling party in an Asian country that does not actively stymie or surreptitiously block attempts to introduce same-sex marriage equality on the grounds of it not according with national, ethnic or religious values, might seem to be taking a revolutionary policy position, especially in the context of common deeply conservative reactions to this issue regionally.
On the other hand, the DPP’s handling of this issue was weak and appropriative. Before being elected president, Tsai promised marriage equality, but afterward left it to the Council of Grand Justices to legalize it by default in two years’ time.
Her party’s legislative caucus has likewise stalled, scared, it seems, to make mistakes with legislative amendments that might undermine the court’s ruling or have the “stain” of the legalization of same-sex marriage formally on their legislative records.
Tsai and the DPP have been happy to brand themselves as LGBTQIA-friendly, but are timid in leading the political fight that would prove themselves as such.
Some might argue that this is clever strategy — achieving the end goal without firing a shot, but it is hardly the mark of a truly progressive party.
Taiwanese democracy emerged in much the same fashion because former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) largely refused to obstruct civic and international pressure for reform. His party at the time, by contrast, set a number of careful birdcages to delimit constitutional reform, which the DPP agreed to, understandably desperate and impatient as it was to see an end to the party-state.
That short-sighted cooperation came at a later cost of maintaining an archaic framework, which sees the seeds of a post-dictatorship sovereign Taiwan still restricted to growing in the international corpse of the Republic of China.
The DPP compromise cost Taiwan a chance to flick off the chains of Chinese colonialism and declare full independence with a new constitution at a time when the Chinese were arguably militarily unequipped and underprepared to challenge or reverse it.
Likewise, with the death penalty, the DPP’s position is not even close to “progressive” and only differs from the KMT’s in that the DPP Ministry of Justice is less enthusiastic to sign off on executions.
Both the DPP and the KMT are proud of Taiwan’s participation and ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), but ask the NGOs and organizations that advocate for the most ostracized, marginalized and alienated in society, and they will nearly all complain of good intentions and nice words covering a lack of substantive action and a lack of actual legal changes required to implement the ICCPR in practice for all, not just non-convicts and the physically more able.
The botched reform of the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法) is another example of the DPP government and legislative caucus mishandling a critical piece of legislative reform by being both timid and bold at the same time, in the hopes that no one will be unmanageably upset if everyone is equally a little upset.
The recent tax reforms were another missed opportunity: Instead of setting an incremental tax rise for businesses with an annual income of less than NT$500,000, in the process instantly raising tax 3 percent for tens of thousands of small and medium enterprises, it should have been based on the number of employees and set at a threshold of 100 plus.
In terms of policy and aspiration, then, the NPP can actually be regarded as the “New Progressive Party” and the DPP as the “Democratic Progression-If-Convenient Party”: the former unabashed and unashamed to stand behind a set of principles that it feels are necessary to shape a positive future regardless of whether there is “sufficient public consensus”; the latter timid, safeguarding a neoliberal and centrist political economy, managing cautiously now in the hope of being able to survive the systemic challenges rushing towards it in the near future.
Politically, this might have been a good opening gambit for the first year of Tsai’s first term in office, but now, following a much-needed cabinet reshuffle, she has a respected premier and the legislative power to inspire voters and demonstrate that her party is actually progressive in both word and deed in the realm of domestic policy.
It is time to start earning the title “progressive” and that second term.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident of Taiwan.
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