Twenty years ago, Taiwan held its first direct presidential elections against a backdrop of uncertainty. Beijing attempted to intimidate voters against voting for the incumbent Lee Teng-hui of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), by conducting missile tests in the Taiwan Strait. Lee won the election with 54% of the popular vote.

Following the handover of the island from the Japanese to the Chinese Nationalist Government in 1945, Taiwan experienced four decades of authoritarian rule, and the massacre of its elites after an uprising known as the ‘February 28 Incident’ in 1947. Authoritarianism was further consolidated when the KMT fled to the island after its defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

february 28
The February 28 Incident.

Yet under the KMT, Taiwan industrialised as one of the Four Asian Tigers, driven by an army of small and medium-sized electronics enterprises. A native tangwai (literally: outside-of-KMT) political movement emerged, and culminated in the founding of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 1986. A democratic two-party system was thus born.

See also: 2016 Taiwan elections explainer.

Taiwan’s third democratically-elected president, Ma Ying-jeou, will depart from office this year with low approval ratings, much like those of his predecessor Chen Shui-bian. But popular frustration is not only directed at Ma’s decision-making in economic and cross-straits issues. Opposition figures have also been calling for an end to “old politics”, though it is not always clear what the problems are, and how exactly the political landscape should be reformed.

While DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen is widely expected to emerge victorious in the 2016 elections, the questions facing Taiwanese democracy appear to be more significant than the names listed on the presidential ballot sheet on Saturday.

‘Old Politics’

To some voters, the KMT itself is the embodiment of “old politics”. It may no longer be an authoritarian party, but some aspects of the authoritarian legacy remain. The KMT is said to be one of the richest political parties in the world, disclosing to the Department of Civil Affairs that it owned a total of TW$25.5 billion in assets as of the end of 2014. Many of the assets were secured during the authoritarian era, allegedly through land seizures.

kmt rally
KMT rally. Photo: Tang

Wang, 31, a veteran DPP campaign worker in Taipei, was adamant about the differences between her party and the KMT. In her view, one vestige of ‘old politics’ is the KMT’s support from a nationwide network developed over many years. “In rural areas, the KMT knows how to develop an emotional bond with people, for example through attending weddings and funerals. Party representatives never miss these events, as that could be perceived as an insult. This way they find out about the voting patterns in virtually every village, and the KMT does this much more effectively than we do.”

But mistrust cuts across party lines. Wang recalls that when she first became a political activist as a student in 2008, “we weren’t explicitly DPP supporters. As a lawyer who defended tangwai activists, Chen Shui-bian used to be our hero, but his presidency was a disappointment. His efforts at transitional justice [for the Taiwanese Government to address the excesses committed during the authoritarian era] were largely unsuccessful, and he was eventually implicated in a corruption scandal.”

Moreover, one of the most visible and unchanging aspects of politics in Taiwan is the antagonism between the pan-blue (KMT-centred) and pan-green (DPP-centred) camps. Both Tsai and Jennifer Wang Ju-hsuan, the KMT vice-presidential candidate, have been accused by each other’s parties of having improperly profited through land speculation in previous decades. These allegations have dominated the headlines.

To Richard, a Taiwanese businessman who has resided in Indonesia for 25 years, the constant bickering between the two camps has become akin to a ‘cultural revolution’. “Taiwanese politics have become a zero-sum game, where right and wrong no longer matter. There is no black or white – only blue or green,” he added.

Tsai has promised to put an end to the confrontational relationship between the camps, and discuss policies with opposition parties once in power. Richard hopes she can keep her promise, adding that “Chen Shui-bian broke his promises of an inclusive government in a mere three months”.

Chen Shui-bian
Former President Chen Shui-bian, arrested for corruption in 2008. Photo: riverwangcts via Flickr.

‘New Politics’?

Yet in the aftermath of the Sunflower Movement and the 2014 local elections, some would argue that a new political reality has emerged in Taiwan, emphasising civic participation among young people. In 2014, turnout among voters aged 20-40 increased from an average of 60 per cent in previous elections to 74-78 per cent, according to Taiwan Thinktank. Newly-established political groups, such as the New Power Party and the Social Democratic Party, are running in the legislative elections.

Led by legal scholar Huang Kuo-chang and heavy metal vocalist Freddy Lim Chang-zuo, the New Power Party’s election manifesto particularly reflects the newfound sense of participation. It advocates rights for citizens to rectify policies and dismiss politicians who go against public opinion, to determine candidate rankings in party list votes, and to act as whistle-blowers against corruption.

Similarly, Wang describes Tsai’s strategy in the lead-up to the 2016 elections as ‘society-first’. Initiatives launched in recent years include Thinking Taiwan, a media outlet and political forum based on reader submissions, which Wang describes as a “forerunner to the new generation of independent online media in Taiwan”. The Friends of Tsai Ing-wen Association has also reached out to industries and unions for consultation in developing policies for Tsai’s electoral platform.

Wang believes that Tsai is experienced enough to put an end to the antagonism between the KMT and the DPP. “Tsai has a background in legal arbitration, and managed to unite the different factions within the DPP when she assumed the chairmanship in 2008.”

dpp rally
DPP rally. Photo: Elson Tong

Lee Zheng-hao, 31, a KMT candidate for the legislative elections, concedes that youth issues have not traditionally been the focus for his party. “We used to mobilise older, conservative voters, instead of seeking the support of young people who fall outside of our core supporters,” he claims, “and we were shocked by the scale of our defeat in the 2014 local elections.” That year, the KMT won only one of the six main mayoral seats in Taiwan, in New Taipei City. Mayor Eric Chu Li-lun is now the party’s presidential candidate.

But the KMT is undergoing a generational change, which Lee hopes will help it recover. “Though I still find myself in meetings where everyone else is above 40, at least I see many more young faces at the party headquarters now than four years ago. I also organise camps to train young people in debating, playing the roles of politicians, protest leaders, and the media. These very same youth camps used to be packed with lectures and classes.”

Lee points out that the changes have been reflected in policymaking. “The KMT used to avoid the minimum wage question, but we now aim to raise the monthly minimum wage from TW$20,008 to TW$30,000. Chu himself also wants to promote vocational education, and ultimately opposes nuclear power. I hope there will be a day when both parties are assessed only on their effectiveness in governance.”

Nevertheless, it appears unlikely that the KMT will reap a quick harvest, and a change in ruling party seems inevitable. “The streets are relatively calm this year. It feels similar to 2008, when the DPP and Chen Shui-bian served their final months, and Ma was guaranteed the presidency,” concludes Wang, “except that the roles have been reversed.”

Elson Tong

Elson Tong

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.