A Turn in Taiwanese Politics: Toward What?

Shih Hsin University, Taiwan

The complete defeat of the DPP by KMT in this past three months surely signal a historical turn in politics in Taiwan, and may have significant consequences in the geopolitics in East Asia and the US-China relations in the coming years. Taiwan is undergoing a dramatic change, so says every commentator on the event. The question is: toward what?

The defeat is so devastating for the Democratic Progressive Party, which was born out of the democratic movement of the 1970s and ‘80s and sees itself as the legitimate heir of the movement, that its level of political influence will revert to that of 1989 after Chen Shui-Bien hands over the presidency to Ma Ying-Jiu on May 20. It falls from the ruling party and one-time largest party in the parliament to a minor opposition holding less than 1/4of the parliamentary seats. Worse still is that the DPP as a party has lost much of its appeals it has striven to gain in the past two decades. It is now viewed by at least 60% of Taiwanese voters as corrupted, inept, full of nepotism and shameless under-the-table power-for-money dealings which are veiled over only by its empty ideological slogans. Save for the brutal persecution of dissents, the current image of DPP is almost exactly that of the KMT in its half-a-century rule before the 2000 election.

A reasonable question that follows is: Has the KMT changed itself so thoroughly in the past eight years so that it can now represent all the political virtues the DPP has lost? Are we going to see a repented and reformed new party coming back to power, as KMT campaigners claim? This is a pressing question because no one party, not even KMT itself, has ever held so much power since the first free and full election of the parliament in 1992. Three-fourth legislative majority plus the executive power means that the KMT, should it be able to hold itself together, can pretty much do whatever it wants now. Many of the 40% of the Taiwanese voters who stick to DPP despite its rotten reputation (called "Deep Green" because of the party color) are now fretting that what comes on May 20 is the return of the old martial-law days. Even worse is that the new administration will now be friendly toward Mainland China’s Communist Party. So it will be two corrupted authoritarian parties joined together and rule over our island.

KMT reborn?

Judged from the appearance, the worries of the Deep Green are nothing but paranoid. Mr. Ma is as far away from the old-fashioned big-bellied, bald-headed KMT party bosses, and the hideous DPP politicians that followed, as possible. He is handsome, physically fit, amicable, trying very hard to be humble despite his Harvard Ph. D. degree. He has never been involved in any sex or money scandals except for this one inappropriate use of special allowances, and he has been acquitted for that. After he got elected, he keeps his regular morning jog and his wife still goes to work by bus, only now with hordes of security officers and reporters in tow.

Ma Ying-Jiu is avowedly anti-corruption. Actually his first high-profile political post is minister of justice in 1993 and he vowed to crack down on the rampant corruption (among the KMT politicians, of course) with an iron hand. However, he was soon replaced before he did any serious harm on the way his party comrades enriched themselves.

The biggest merit of Ma Ying-Jiu as a candidate, and the biggest problem of him as a president, is that there is scarcely anyone like him in KMT. He is spotless! The reason why he won party primary so easily and his campaign can hold the whole pan-Blue camp (KMT and its splinters) so tightly together is exactly because his camp can offer no one else of the same caliber who has not been mired in one scandal or another.

The composition of the current Legislative Yuan (parliament) is suggestive. Among the 73 legislators (out of 113) elected from the districts, one-third have known ties with organized crime, and the majority of the rest represent traditional local factions. These factions control local financial institutions, using their hold on the local governments to profit from real-estate speculation, and all of them have associated construction companies specialized in skimming hefty profits from public works. These factions were nurtured by KMT during the martial-law decades as their grassroots organizations, and grew into dominant powers inside the party because of its ability to get votes through intricate local networks. The DPP has their own share of such traditional politicians; many defected from the KMT camp, others successfully learned how to play local politics from the KMT.

The rest of the legislators are from party-list votes and are supposed to represent the values their parties hold and the voices of the disadvantaged sectors. Yet they are not any less old-fashioned on the side of the KMT. Many are still traditional local faction leaders.

The KMT camp has always have difficulty getting clean and fresh people nominated inside the party. For instance, the "labor representative" KMT nominated on its party-list for the past two legislative elections was Hou Tsai-Fong (侯彩鳳),who has also been long-time members of KMT central standing committee. She holds the title of president of one of the national trade union federations. Her federation oddly holds the legal monopoly power of representing workers in all the Export Processing Zones in Taiwan even during the DPP administration. And her husband is one of the biggest banker-qua-politicians in the industrial city of Kaohsiung. Lucky for KMT is that Hou decides to turn to district election this time. But the person who replaces her as KMT’s "labor representative" this time is yet another local developer-politician who has not one iota of experience in either working or trade-union activities. He bought his presidency to KMT-controlled China Federation of Labor just for being nominated to KMT’s party-list.

So, what kind of government will the Ma administration be? An angel leading a bunch of hyenas? Worse still, Ma is no powerful archangel who can strike a lightening on any undisciplined hyena under his charge. Instead, he is a nice guy. Despite his comparatively strict self-discipline, compromise is what he is known to be good at in politics.

Optimistic pan-Blue supporters can seek comfort from another source: the so-called technocratic tradition of KMT. It is widely believed, even among the DPP supporters, that there were an army of smart, law-abiding, altruist and visionary public servants running Taiwan’s economy during the decades of high economic growth from 1960s to the 1980s. While the now-powerful local faction bosses were still party minions in the countryside, the technocrats held absolute power over the policies of the central government (because the Legislative Yuan was a bogus one and no check-and-balance existed then), and they use those power only for providing excellent investment environment for the capital, not for their personal gains. Some of these figures such as K. T. Lee(李國鼎)are so widely acclaimed by the media, especially the business press, that they are believed to be the true reason behind Taiwan’s prosperity at that time. Conversely, the absence of people like them in the eight years of DPP rule can be used to explain the economic depression of recent years. Whether this is historically accurate is highly debatable, and this view grossly overlooked the prices paid by Taiwanese people in those decades: human rights violations, labor abuses, rural poverty, environmental devastation, and so on. However, since the image of Ma looks so much like a K. T. Lee-style technocrat, maybe he will build up an effective executive branch like the old days, and disregard the worrisome tendencies in the parliament? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s comforting to think that way, especially after two decades of capital flight.

If all of the above fails, the new KMT government still has one fool-proof solution to Taiwan’s economic ails: China. While the DPP was busy provoking China, and pissing off the US along the way, by their pursuit of formal independence of Taiwan, and vainly preventing Taiwanese capitalists from rushing into Mainland China, KMT has established close party-to-party dialogues with the Chinese Communist Party in recent years. Opening up trade, travel, investment and all other ties with China is high on the agenda of Ma’s campaign. In fact, many of the KMT party bosses (along with some DPP politicians) have become important investors in China, sharing the profit from China’s massive privatization of public assets with their local hosts. All those are so familiar for them because this was exactly what KMT was doing themselves in the 1990 in Taiwan. As for the common people, China means the possibility of a small-time Taiwanese businessman or even a force-retired worker with some savings having a chance to strike it rich with its vast market and cheap labor. Or maybe the rich Chinese are interested in Taiwan, too. They will be welcomed here as tourist and/or real-estate and stock-market speculators, providing jobs and boosting the prices of the two-bed-room apartment and the meager share of stocks a common Taiwanese family owns. China means growth! Few care to ask, however, growth for whom?

As for the movement. . .

So, is the downfall of DPP good or bad for the social movements and the progressive cause? This is a question frequently asked but curiously seldom debated among activists in Taiwan. Taiwanese activists tend to be empiricists and reluctant to imagine what they have not encountered before.

One thing for sure is this: The demoralized DPP is now undergoing self-criticism. All versions of self-criticism raised by DPP members so far contends that the party made a historical mistake by abandoning its progressive characteristics after 2000 and thus blurred its difference with KMT except on the question of national identity. Hence, these people call for the party to re-link itself to the social movements. And most of the activists believe that the DPP is unable to do this now.

Before 2000, the biggest divide inside the broadly defined social movements in Taiwan is "the DPP question." Is it worthwhile for the movements to concentrate all our effort and support the relatively progressive party to gain power? Or does it make more sense to remain vigilant to all mainstream political parties because all they want is just power? Eight years of DPP administration proven the latter correct. The Chen Shui-Bien government abandoned most of the progressive elements in DPP’s party program and his own campaign platform almost immediately after he got elected in 2000. Sometimes the DPP explained this as a result of boycott from KMT legislators. Other times, such as on the issue of abandoning nuclear power, they simply suggested that the US would’t like it, and that’s that. There have been scattered policy measures for the disadvantaged groups here and there during the DPP administration, mostly in the form of cash hand-outs. Yet much more visible are the continued privatization of public assets and hand-out to big corporations.

Many of the pro-DPP activists have been recruited into the DPP government in the past eight years. Few of them have achieved anything substantial, and many of them even contradict what they have been advocating before. With track records like that, it will be very hard for them to regain the trust of their former allies and supporters in the movement.

Some social-movement groups have reverted from mass organizations to legislative lobbies during the DPP administration. Chief among them is the pro-DPP Taiwan Labor Front, once the biggest faction in the autonomous trade-union movement, but now a tiny office with a staff of one or two after all its important leaders either became labor administrators in the DPP government or retired in comfort. Women’s movement used to be highly visible in the mid-1990s. But after its liberal tendencies joined the DPP government and the radical tendencies failed to gain new grounds, it is stagnant for quite some time now.

The old ways of legislative lobbying is bound to be less and less useful under the new KMT government. Since 1992, after the Legislative Yuan was fully re-elected, many social-movement groups, from labor to animal rights, have been using partisan rivalry in the parliament and try to make their agenda made into law. After 2000, sometimes advocacy groups will try to make use of the contradictions between the executive branch and the KMT-dominated parliament. Mass actions are often seen as only an auxiliary pressure tactic aiding the legislative campaigns. Sometimes the movements gain incremental reform measures, sometimes they don’t. However, in this new parliament, the opposition is reduced to such an insignificant minority, and with the presidency in the hand of the same party, all possibilities of policy reform in effect depends solely on the will of the KMT. This is a whole new game.

I personally think this is a healthy development in the long run. For the past twenty years, social movements in Taiwan have been too busy playing the infinitely intricate political games with the mainstream parties and spend too little on grassroots mobilization. Now, with one party firmly in power, there cease to be numerous options and combinations of options to belabor our minds. You either succumb to the authority, or organize and fight.