Counterintuitive as it might seem, the opportunist presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), chairman of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), responds to the need for an economic left in the Taiwanese political landscape.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been seen as a left-leaning party because of its advocacy for gender equality, and LGBT and minority rights.
However, the DPP has tended toward free-market liberalism under President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) leadership. How did the once grassroots, populist party turn to free-market liberalism?
One reason is that Tsai is a cautious, piecemeal reformist. Recall the days when the Tsai administration started with a landslide victory in 2016. Her voters were expecting radical reforms that would offset former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) pro-China, conservative route.
However, she set up a Cabinet with pan-blue bureaucrats who were disparagingly referred to as “old, blue men.”
Tsai’s economic policies, likewise, are piecemeal. The 2016-2018 reforms of the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法) were supposed to bring a two-day weekend, but she cut the number of national holidays as a transitional measure and promised “flexibility” for employers. The reforms were not only criticized by employers, but also invoked a backlash from workers.
Tsai also failed to cool the overheated housing market, despite several tax law changes.
Income disparity increased during her administration and housing prices continued to skyrocket. The only pro-labor policy that Tsai constantly emphasizes is increases to the minimum wage, but their effects seem to be offset by inflation.
Tsai and the DPP did nothing bad, but they did not do enough when there seems to be a need for more radical reforms.
Yes, there are countless reasons that mild economic policies are better and why they did not seem to work in the past eight years. Taiwan’s economy is sensitive to labor reforms because it is primarily composed of small and medium-sized enterprises. It is difficult to increase the burden of those who own multiple houses while not hitting the majority of Taiwanese households who own one.
Above all, the massive amount of money printed during the COVID-19 pandemic around the world might have played a larger role in ratcheting up property prices and widening the wealth gap between the top 20 percent and the bottom 20 percent.
However, in the eyes of those who struggle — young people living on NT$28,000 a month, gazing at the distant goal of living in their own home — Tsai’s “mild” policies are simply ineffective. Not to mention the DPP’s ties with the wealthy (arguably a phenomenon in many other parties as well) and scandals involving companies in the biotech and renewable energy industry.
This means the DPP is, using a phrase commonly used by Ko’s supporters, “corrupt.”
These domestic affairs are invisible to many foreign observers, but Taiwanese voters might care more about domestic problems that pose real dangers to them every day than a war that no one can predict.
If we look at the local elections in 2018 and last year in which livelihoods mattered more than China, voters prefered candidates from parties other than the DPP.
Ko, an opportunist, attracts support from young people because he not only criticizes the DPP’s handling of domestic issues, especially income disparity, but also offers a new vision of a more equal society.
Topics such as traffic safety, education, healthcare, income disparity and technological innovation dominate the “KP National Affairs Conference” (KP國是會議) YouTube series, in which Ko shares his policy plans. He brought up income disparity in discussions that would not normally be associated with the topic, including when talking about education.
On the other hand, topics such as ties with the US and China never seem to arise.
Spare a glance at his videos and you will find that Ko’s ideas are well articulated and appealing. One can argue that cross-strait issues are the most important for Taiwan, but the reality is that young voters dissatisfied with everyday issues such as education, housing prices and wealth distribution rally behind him.
Ko is a populist, but I use the word with its original, positive connotation that he represents vox populi.
Observers usually talk about next month’s election with a focus on the cross-strait issue, separating politicians and voters into two camps: the China-friendly Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the TPP, and the China-cautious DPP.
Ko’s supporters consider the TPP as the left that can bring them a more just and equal society, and the DPP and the KMT as the right which is inextricably tied with the wealthy.
In this scenario, it is not accurate to say that the KMT’s presidential candidate, New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜), and Ko are “the opposition” and conclude that votes will be split between them, whereas Vice President William Lai (賴清德), the DPP’s candidate, will probably win with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Young people, regarded as the most decisive factor in Tsai’s landslide 2020 victory, have turned to Ko in this campaign. Ko’s supporters are not necessarily a mild version of KMT supporters, but rather people who crave a more equal society, whom the DPP had previously appealed to.
Ko and his party are capable of snaffling votes from the KMT and the DPP.
Of course, the TPP is not close to being a socialist party. Its vice presidential candidate is a wealthy daughter of the Shin Kong Group and Ko will probably change his policies if elected.
However, for the time being, Ko’s supporters yearn for a larger government and a society where young people can dream of a better future.
A poll conducted by RW News showed that those who consider themselves to have higher socioeconomic status tend to vote for Lai, whereas those who consider themselves to have lower socioeconomic status tend to vote for Ko.
Ko’s supporters rally around him because the DPP and the KMT are incapable of improving issues related to their everyday livelihoods, yet many observers still see the race as one that prioritizes the China issue and predict that Ko and Hou are fighting for the same pool of votes.
Such analyses overlook the longings for a “left” government among young Taiwanese.
Ko might be hollow, but his supporters’ voices are not.
Chiu Chien-Cheng is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in East Asian Studies at the University of Tokyo.
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