Taiwanese Election: Referendum on the Mainland

With little more than three months until Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections, the ruling Kuomintang’s leaders are still bickering and debating over whether they made the right choice last June in selecting Hung Hsiu-chu, the acerbic vice-president of the Legislative Yuan and party deputy secretary-general, as their candidate. Strong rumors continue to circulate in Taiwan saying that party chairman Eric Chu may soon replace Hung.

That is not their only worry. The party also has a good chance to lose its majority rule in the legislature.

However, what is taking place is much bigger than a party choosing the wrong candidate, or the simple change of party rule in a democratic election. Taiwan may be witnessing the waning if not the possible outright demise of the Kuomintang, something that would not only restructure Taiwan politics but has the potential to permanently affect Asian politics as well. After years of unwilling acquiescence to China’s nationalistic claims, Taiwan’s public is leaning away from the mainland and, given the shrinking enthusiasm for the Kuomintang, is likely to favor the more nationalist Democratic Progressive Party even in the legislature.

A February 2015 poll by the Taiwan Brain Trust polling organization shows that nearly 90 percent of the island’s population identify themselves as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese” if they were to choose between the two, and the percentage is even higher among those aged from 20 to 40. Only 2.5 percent of those aged 20 to 29 consider themselves Chinese. The percentage wanting nothing to do with China has been steadily growing as aging onetime mainlanders and their immediate offspring die off.

When Hung first ran to be the KMT nominee for the presidency last June, she likened her efforts to displaying a brick to attract jade, a Chinese warfare stratagem meaning to lay a trap with attractive bait. Unfortunately, party heavyweights held back and no jade came forth.

Such reluctance, inspired by suspicions that any KMT candidate would lose, raised a different and deeper question; did the party have any real jade left? Ideological and identity issues have been proving more than temporary in KMT ranks. Young leadership was not being fostered and past leaders have not been up to the task.

In this setting, the selection of Hung, who has vocally longed to recapture the one-party state days of Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo, has only exacerbated the party’s problems. Hung knows the party’s catechism and can spout past memes, beliefs and rote answers but cannot explain their application in a changing world. Her overt identification with how the party still deserves to rule China has made her blind to these changing times and the growing Taiwanese national identity. The brick has remained a brick. So much so that the party is worried whether she will even attract 23 percent of the vote.

Hung’s candidacy has created problems for other party members running for the Legislative Yuan. To control the legislature, a party must hold 57 of the 113 seats. Currently the KMT holds a majority of 64 seats. If it loses eight, however, it will lose that majority.

Because of the anticipated poor showing in the presidential race, the KMT is almost certain to lose several of the 34 at-large seats that are dependent on party vote. In 2012, it got 16 at-large seats. This time it will be lucky to get 12. The voting trends expressed in the nine-in-one elections in November 2014 are foreboding; the KMT barely held onto one major city, Sinbei city; and it lost many of its previous strongholds including Taipei. This can be expected to translate into additional lost permanent legislative district seats.

One cause – surprising perhaps to many outsiders –has been the failed eight years of the Ma Ying-jeou presidency. Ma, the incumbent lame duck who started with the highest percentage ever gained by a presidential candidate, 58 percent in 2008, has proven to be more image than substance. By November 2012, he had already earned the international nickname of “bumbler” and his continued attempts to overly rely on China for economic growth have destroyed any past mythic belief or trust in the party’s ability to manage the economy.

The so-called Sunflower protest that occupied the Legislative Yuan in spring 2014 was primarily over Ma’s non-transparent attempts to solidify Taiwan’s economic ties with China through an omnibus cross-strait trade policy that students thought would pull Taiwan too closely into China’s political and economic orbit. As for corruption, Ma may well be indicted when he leaves office. For these reasons, any candidates running for permanent legislative district seats do not want Ma or Hung to be seen campaigning alongside of them.

Domestically, Taiwan is continuing to develop a strong Taiwanese identity. The island doesn’t have to utter the forbidden “I” word –independence – since it already sees itself as independent. What is being voiced is a different “I” word, identity. And that is something that China has been unable to stop with either soft power or threats.

How would all this play out in Asia?

Should a new government in Taipei once again start to make overt gestures towards independence, China would not be pleased. Taiwan remains both an economic plum and a strategic military asset. Its location gives China’s navy uninhibited blue-water access to the Pacific. War would be China’s last resort to gain this plum, but that would destroy the plum and leave it to police an unruly occupied territory. Sympathizers who are both anti-democracy and pro-China within Taiwan are minimal, even in the KMT.

Japan is perhaps the country most directly affected by the changes in Taiwan’s political development. A free, democratic Taiwan is important for Japan’s awakening regional aspirations. Recent changes in Japan’s use of its military to defend neighbors further provide it with an appropriate reason to respond if China becomes too belligerent.

All countries bordering the South China Sea and in particular the Philippines would benefit as well. They have already experienced China’s hegemonic efforts to dominate that area. They also know well the dangers that come with being too economically dependent on China.

A DPP president with a DPP legislature in Taiwan would clearly diversify Taiwan’s economy and redefine its goals and its international role, but it would have to do so very carefully. In 1996, the United States was forced to send the US Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to put a stop to the firing of missiles across the tip of the island by an outraged China when then-President Lee Teng-hui made vague references to independence.

The so-called “strategic ambiguity” that has continued to prevail since that time has probably served both capitals well. The People’s Liberation Army hard-liners have been ascendant for the past several years. It probably wouldn’t be wise for the DPP’s pro-independence factions to be too obvious. Indeed, according to the Brain Trust poll, 31.2 percent of respondents said they support independence for Taiwan, while 56.2 percent would prefer to maintain the “status quo” and only 7.9 percent support unification with China.

However, Taiwan may well start making its own careful, independent Southeast Asia policy. Asia and the world need to start preparing for these coming changes.