It is entirely understandable that many politicians in the world’s leading superpower might not have the time to pay close attention to the minutiae of party politics in other countries, such as Taiwan, especially nations with less than a tenth of the population of the U.S., or which are situated far across the Pacific Ocean. This is despite the fact that Taiwan is the U.S.'s 10th largest trading partner.
With Presidential and Congressional elections coming up in November 2016 and with candidates already positioning themselves and raising funds for party primaries, political actors in the U.S. are busy trying to secure their futures. Whilst all this takes place, behind the scenes, the State Department continues its work managing U.S. relations with the other one hundred and ninety-one U.N. members, as well as with non-aligned countries and territories of interest. Whilst ignorance of international relations is not considered a good qualification for holding the highest offices in the land, conversely, as some presidential candidates have found to their detriment, too much international experience can also be a disadvantage. This was a lesson that respected diplomat Jon Huntsman appeared to learn after he briefly spoke Mandarin during a televised primary debate. He dropped out of the race shortly afterward.
Yet herein lies a paradox. Many in the U.S. consider the country to be truly globally and historically exceptional. As a result there is a tendency toward a U.S.-centric myopia, whereby the internal politics of other nations are considered petty in comparison, and not significant enough to influence the States. At the same time, the U.S. government’s foreign policy indicates an opposite opinion: since the nineteenth century, it has been very concerned with, and directly and indirectly involved in influencing political events in other countries. Outside the U.S. Government, whilst many Americans might not feel concerned with events in Taiwan, Taiwanese are watching nervously to see whether the State Department will make any comments which might seek to shape the outcome of Taiwan’s Presidential and Legislative elections set to take place in January 2016.
Between 2000 and 2004, the U.S. Government made a catastrophic strategic error when it persistently mischaracterised then President Chen as ‘provoking China’ and ‘raising tensions’. It failed to understand how conciliatory Chen had been in his first term or how he was able to get re-elected in 2004, and the U.S. Government then compounded these errors by not heeding the warning signs when the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) bypassed the democratically elected Government and commandeered state-level Taiwan-China relations as property of CCP-KMT party-to-party forums. Since 2008, the U.S. Government has absent-mindedly cheered superficial peace and progress in cross-strait relations from the side-lines, unaware of how this would embolden the PRC, not only in the Taiwan Strait but also the South and East China Seas. The cost of that naivety is now becoming quite apparent.
Furthermore, despite the KMT radically altering the nature and content of a ‘status-quo’ it had promised not to change, voices from the U.S. still arguably intervened on the side of 'stability' and 'continuity' in the 2012 election – acts which many Taiwanese feel helped ensure the KMT would remain in power for another four years. Whilst the U.S. has tried to strike an impartial tone towards Taiwanese domestic politics and claims it won't intervene in these forthcoming elections, it remains true that statements during an election season expressing a wish for the 'maintenance of cross-strait dialogue, progress, and peace in cross-strait relations', although innocuous sounding, contain an implicit bias towards the (ruling) party that currently owns those dialogues and relations.
In contrast to some international support for President Ma's China policies, domestic support for his approach to handling relations has collapsed dramatically in the last two years. As a direct result, in this current election cycle, the U.S Government should take note that not much is going according to plan for the President's party and if the U.S. does not pay closer attention to underlying domestic tensions, it might find itself caught off-guard after the polls close. At present, the election appears set to result in a large defeat for the ruling party, which could create a situation in which a lame-duck President uses his remaining four months in office to impose policies which run counter to what a majority of the electorate have just explicitly voted for. This election might see the KMT, which has always seemed too big and too wealthy to fail, lose so many seats that it is no longer able to block en-masse, as it did between 2000 and 2008, a DPP Government's legislative agenda and budgets. Instead, the KMT could begin a decent into minority party status, coming to represent a diminishing, ideologically extreme, and increasingly isolated proportion of the electorate.
A little history here is instructive. From the end of the Second World War until the year 2000, Taiwan was effectively run as a one-party-state "constitutional dictatorship" by the KMT, whose leadership comprised of elites who had fled from China to Taiwan in 1949 after the CCP seized control of the country. For much of that time, the U.S. supported and funded this dictatorship as part of its wider Cold War strategy to contain the spread of communism. At around the same time Deng Xiaoping began internal market reforms and relinking China back into the global economic mainstream, Taiwan also underwent change, beginning a process of democratisation following the end of Martial Law. Along with an end to permanent mainland China legislators, the passing of six constitutional amendments, and the institution of a direct popular vote for President, Taiwan transitioned to a multi-party democracy with a free media. In contrast, China massacred students and workers in Tiananmen Square and clamped down on dissent, setting in motion an accelerating divergence in the lived experiences, economy, and political culture of ordinary Taiwanese and Chinese.
Between 1996 and 2008, Taiwan not only underwent its first peaceful democratic transition of power, but its two presidents, Lee Teng-Hui and Chen Shui-Bian, promoted a Taiwan-centric identity and politics. Most importantly, Taiwanese democracy became intimately linked with the idea that Taiwan, although still officially the Republic of China in name, was in practice an entirely separate country from the Peoples Republic of China - the clear distinction between the political and economic systems of the two serving as an obvious marker of their non-overlapping political identities as abutting but non-continuous sovereign entities. Taiwanese threw off the shackles of crude colonialism, of which they had been relatively powerless and unwilling survivors for the previous four hundred years, and took pride in their national identity as 'new Taiwanese', even as a majority still happily regarded themselves as largely Chinese in culture. The idea of the necessity of ‘retaking the mainland’ or of ‘unifying’ their country with the undemocratic regime in China became not only illogical but also widely unpopular. Today only a small minority still harbour desire for any such move.
In 2008, things changed again when the KMT returned to power with a China-centric President determined to create a legacy in the realm of Taiwan-China relations. The electorate was told that the KMT was the natural party of the economy, professional and incorrupt stewards who would revive Taiwan’s economy through landmark expansion of interaction with China. Where the new opposition saw danger, the KMT leadership saw opportunity. Over the last seven years of this administration however, most Taiwanese have come to be sorely disappointed. A major economic agreement with China, called ECFA, did not manifest the benefits that were promised, and any benefits that might have been accrued were largely negated by poor global economic conditions, and apathy on the part of the Taiwanese Government to consider non-China trade & investment based solutions. An explosion in Chinese tourists has delivered patchy and uneven financial rewards for Taiwanese businesses, and has come at a rising environmental cost. The Government's failure to reshape, reinforce, or revive the economy to meet global challenges in ways other than continuing support for the 'development-state' model and large corporations has drawn scorn and generated rising public frustration.
Furthermore, the Ma Administration's obtuseness to public concerns about stagnating wages, rising property prices, media monopolisation, government corruption, food quality issues, and reliance on dangerously old nuclear power infrastructure has alienated many voters. Worries about interaction with China being largely predicated and contingent upon KMT-CCP relations also angered a sufficient number of voters that they handed the KMT a devastating vote of no confidence in the November 2014 elections. This came just months after student protestors occupied the Legislature for three weeks in a publicly supported attempt to prevent the Government from rubber-stamping through more trade black-box agreements with the PRC. The KMT went from controlling three of Taiwan’s five municipal cities to holding onto only one of six. Following this debacle, the President resigned as his party’s Chairman, and a new, younger, and seemingly more popular Chairman took over, all of which then set the stage for a truly bizarre turn of events as the party failed to nominate a popular or capable presidential candidate for the next presidential election.
Instead of following precedent, widespread expectations, and pressure from within his own party, the new interim Chairman of the KMT, Eric Chu, declined to run for election, and then indicated that he would likely not continue as Chairman after the election regardless of the result. Why he did this is still not entirely clear. It could owe itself to the fact that he had just been elected Mayor of Taiwan’s most populous municipality and wished not to renege on his promise to see out his term. Another theory argues that his recent visit to China and meeting with President Xi was a public relations disaster which made him look simultaneously weaker and more ideological in his commitment to 'One China' than the President. Others suggest that Chu had calculated the opposition DPP would win the Presidency and thus he felt it a lost cause that could potentially damage a later run for the same office. Yet more theories have emerged saying the party is riven by internecine warfare between Taiwanese and mainlander factions following the President’s failed attempted purge of the KMT Legislative Speaker (who has traditionally represented the Taiwanese faction), an insult only compounded by his then alleged behind the scenes pressure to stymie that same popular politician when he tried to build support for the party's nomination as presidential candidate.
At the time of writing, the KMT appears to have a choice of three poor candidates: the current Vice-President Wu Den-yi, the aforementioned Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, and Deputy Legislative Speaker Hung Hsiu-chu. Of the three, only Hung formally registered to run in the party primary but there remain suspicions that the party will overrule its own primary procedures to 'draft' either Wu, Wang, or even Chu 'against his will', should they consider Hung's candidacy to be too much of a risk. Wu, Wang, and Hung are all currently projected in polls to lose by double digits against the DPP’s candidate – a battle-hardened and electorally savvy politician who appears to have learned the lessons of her failed 2012 attempt for the office. In short, the KMT appears to be in utter disarray. The fact that Chu has indicated that no party funds will be allocated for the Presidential race has stunned political observers. For a party whose success in previous elections at all levels has come to a large degree on the back of drawing on the deep well of its vast wealth and investments, many of which have legally questionable origins, this move feels akin to political seppuku. The alleged backstairs intrigue surrounding the process for selecting the party's candidate and a succession of strange decisions by Chu have frustrated party members and confused analysts. As a result there is already discussion of whether the KMT needs another new chairman, and sooner rather than later.
The minutiae of KMT party politics aside, why should this election be of special interest to the U.S.? Surely it’s just another democratic cycle with another likely transition of power; the KMT will lick its wounds, reorganise and return strongly in 2020 or 2024. Yes and no. Although it is far too soon to say that the KMT’s days as a dominant force in Taiwanese politics, at least at the national level, are coming to an end, there are signs that party cleavage realignment amongst voters could make it very difficult for the KMT to regain its previously unassailable position of power and influence. One of these is demographic changes. The KMT is increasingly unpopular with younger voters and its traditional base of support is gradually dying out as third and fourth generation children of mainlander families come to identify more with Taiwan than China. Within the party, a lack of fresh leadership talent within the mainlander faction and a reluctance to source talent from Taiwanese factions has meant a dwindling and ageing leadership pool desperately holding onto relevance and influence at the expense of the party’s wide appeal to voters.
Much depends on the results of the next Legislative elections, held at the same time as the Presidential vote. If the pro-China KMT loyalist mainlander, or ‘deep-blue’, voters stay home again or protest vote for either a light-blue or dark-blue party instead of the KMT, it is entirely possible that the DPP could come close to winning a slim majority of seats in the Legislature for the first time ever, as well as the Presidency. The emergence of the MKT party, essentially a mirror of the KMT with slightly more Taiwan-sensitive packaging, could also do some damage to the KMT, although the extent is not clear at this time. The People First Party, led by a veteran and inveterate politician, poses the most serious challenge as it would be a natural home for a deep-blue protest vote. With the President seen as an electoral liability, the party regarded as divided, and its leadership jealously reserved for a northern based mainlander elite increasingly disconnected from mainstream opinion, there’s the possibility that, much like the Labour Party in Scotland, the KMT could hemorrhage seats outside of its traditional strongholds in northern constituencies.
Although unlikely at this time, should the KMT lose heavily in central Taiwan, Taipei City, and New Taipei City, it is just possible the party could go from a sixty plus seat majority to even a forty seat minority, a feat that would require a swing to the DPP of around 10% nationally and between 53% and 57% of all votes going to DPP legislators. Should that not entirely impossible outcome occur, barring some disastrous error by a new DPP administration, such a devastating result would be hard for the KMT to completely reverse in 2020, thus potentially reducing it from a party which previously assumed it would always win a natural majority to one which would have to fight tooth and nail at every election to break even with the DPP or to form a slim majority through a coalition.
For the U.S., this realignment of party politics would have major implications – it would send an undeniable message that a majority of Taiwanese do not want a China-centric President or Government, and that a largely mainlander-run KMT is essentially unelectable in the long run. It would also likely mean the end of the KMT’s utility as a useful tool in providing a domestic conservative, reactionary bulwark against the Taiwan consensus that cross-strait relations shouldn't be anything less than state to state and fully international in nature. It would force the U.S. to acknowledge that economic bribes and political pressure will not entice the Taiwanese to forgo their freedom, democracy, or independence. It would mean that the policy of blaming Taiwanese leaders for being ‘provocative’ just for the ‘sin’ of reflecting the public’s recognition of, and desire to maintain, Taiwan’s de facto independence would become increasingly antagonistic to facts on the ground. At this point the U.S. would be faced with some uncomfortable questions. How constructive or popular would it be for it to chastise the Taiwanese for refusing to negotiate in good faith with a gun to their head? What message would this send to other countries in the region seeking to contain PRC encroachment upon their sovereign waters and territories? If the U.S. buries its head in the sand to avoid mentioning the elephant in the room when it comes to Taiwan, how soon before they are forced to confront it elsewhere?
A possible KMT collapse therefore represents both a danger and an opportunity to U.S. interests in the region. If the U.S. is truly invested in promoting the continuance and security of Taiwanese democracy then that investment cannot be contingent upon who is in power. It is a commitment which, however uncomfortable this conclusion might be, logically includes enabling the Taiwanese to maintain their de facto sovereign independence as a nation, regardless of the official title, or whether official relations with the country exist or not. One cannot elucidate a passionate defence of the importance of democracy and then add caveats which effectively say “only if that democracy doesn’t touch on the nature of cross-strait relations or the identity of Taiwan, or impede the nation’s pathway to being peacefully annexed into the PRC at a later date”. That’s not supporting democracy or the will of the twenty-three million people of Taiwan but rather cajoling them to sue for peace out of a cynical strategic convenience. Neither is it supportive to leave unchallenged the contention that 'people on both sides of the Strait' have a say in Taiwan's future when Chinese citizens cannot vote in Taiwanese elections. If the KMT are not only removed from power in 2016 but also lose their majority in the Legislature the U.S. Government needs to recognise the origins of this shift rather than fret about how this might upset the PRC.
The U.S. Government will need to realise that a public rejection of the KMT is not only a verdict on its vanquished reputation as a capable economic steward but also, and perhaps more importantly, a collective statement that Taiwanese have rejected the party for holding onto and promoting a policy of ‘unification’. It will be the Taiwanese sending a message that they will not tolerate a Government whose policy of appeasement contrasts so starkly with unabated PRC humiliation of Taiwan on the international stage, and undiluted threats to force ‘unification’ should Taiwanese continue to ‘drag their heels’. The U.S. needs to clearly understand that majority sentiment in Taiwan is, despite the attempts of the KMT, solidly in favour of maintaining the ‘status-quo’ of Taiwan’s de facto independence, and is slowly shifting to outright rejection of ‘unification’ under any terms, at any time. This transformation is not the result of pro-independence factions activities or an electoral irregularity but a profound demographic and ideological shift whose origins predate the Second World War, the re-emergence of which was stimulated by the process of democratisation.
Of course, it is entirely possible that the KMT’s present trouble is merely a bump in the road and it is still more than likely that the party will win enough seats to remain the largest in the Legislature, even if it does lose control of the Presidency and the Government. There are just over seven months until the elections and much could happen in that period which could render this thesis redundant. At the same time, the 318 Movement and subsequent November local elections demonstrated that Taiwan’s digital democracy is dynamic and capable of delivering shocking results. What we have learned is that it appears Taiwanese voters are far less forgiving and not so ideologically wedded to party identity that they wouldn’t punish the KMT to a magnitude hitherto unseen, perhaps even relegating it to relative political impotence and obscurity. If that happens, it would be wise for the allies Stateside to understand the roots of those electoral verdicts rather than continue to verbally passively and indirectly support the KMT as the only hope for maintaining what is in reality a contingent and ultimately anti-democratic cross-strait ‘peace’ manufactured by plutocratic elites in Taipei and Beijing.
Should the KMT lose control of the Government and the Legislature next year, let us hope wiser heads in Washington don't repeat past mistakes but rather adjust to a new reality. The democracy and peaceful independence of the Taiwanese people, and their nation, may come to depend on it.