Taiwan’s Politics are Growing Up

The bad news about next year’s presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan is that concern over corruption is likely to take center stage – ironically this is also the good news because it indicates that Taiwanese politics are normalizing.

In the two decades since Taiwan embraced democratic elections the polls have been dominated by questions of identity and relations with the mainland. These issues have hardly disappeared but this abnormal preoccupation with national status is fading, and a far more conventional concern with the politics of integrity appears to be looming as the central issue.

“Clean politics are more important than policy,” says Tsai Chia-hung from the Election Study Center at the National Chengchi University. The dark shadow of corruption seems to shade everyone from the incumbent president’s family to the main candidates in the March presidential poll and politicians far lower down the food chain.

Thus it is hardly surprising that the public is concerned about integrity. Michael Hsiao, who heads the Asia Pacific Studies center at Academia Sinica, declares bluntly, albeit flippantly, “there is no such thing as a clean politician.” Considering that he is also a policy advisor to President Chen Shui-bian, his extreme skepticism about politicians is perhaps remarkable.

Yet discussion and political debate in Taiwan are open and alive in a way never before seen in a Chinese society. Even high ranking officials can be found ignoring the usual weasel-like excuses for shortcomings that are customary in other political systems. Shieh Jhy-wei, the new minister of information, cheerfully declares that democracy in Taiwan is sometimes “demo-crazy.” Frank Hsieh, the presidential candidate for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is equally open, he says, “it seems as though corruption is everywhere and that people are disappointed by politicians.”

No one pretends that brawls in the legislature are a good thing or that there is anything approaching a smooth political process. But equally no one wants to go back to the old days of authoritarian government under the one-party rule of the Kuomintang .Hsiao puts it this way, “Once you get to be 20 years old you can’t go back to being 10.”

So despite all the shortcomings of the still-infant democratic system, it is hard to find much nostalgia for the old order. Indeed Ma Ying-Jeou, the KMT’s presidential candidate, while reluctant to criticize the former regime, is resolutely forward looking and firmly declares, “democracy is here to stay.”

He is however unlikely to travel down the route now enthusiastically taken by Lee Teng-hui, the last KMT president, who has broken with the party and become an avid supporter of Taiwanese independence.

This has left Lee adrift in the political wilderness because the vast majority of Taiwanese show no enthusiasm for an open declaration of independence, preferring instead the status quo that gives them a fully functioning sovereign state, albeit one recognized by almost no foreign government or international institution of significance and a state that is continually thwarted in its attempts at gaining recognition even in functional bodies such as the World Health Organization, which is supposed to eschew politics.

What is significant about the upcoming elections is that the major contenders – the KMT and the ruling DPP seem reluctant to have the issue of Taiwan’s status at the heart of their campaigns, as has been the practice in the past. Ma simply shrugs off the politics of identity and has just published a book entitled “Native Spirit” that calls for an end to the divide between those who identify themselves as mainlanders and those who see themselves as Taiwanese. The DPP’s Frank Hsieh is downplaying the ethnic divide (although his rise to prominence was largely based on playing the Taiwanese card) and talks instead of “coexistence and co-prosperity” between Taiwan and China.

Interestingly even in Kaohsiung, which is supposed to be the heartland of Taiwanese nationalism, it seems that national identity has slid down the agenda of voter’s concerns. “These elections are not about national identity,” says Lui Cheng-shan, of the Institute of Political Science at the National Sun Yat-Sen University in Kaohsiung. This is not to say that the development of Taiwanese identity is weakening, but merely that it is less of an election issue.

The KMT, generally regarded as a party of mainlanders, has always been wary of allowing national identity to be a major issue in election campaigns. In the past it has been dragged into the identity debate by the DPP who view their resolute identification with Taiwan as a trump card. However, disappointment with the DPP as a government is now widespread and its leaders recognize that merely waving the green flag of Taiwanese nationalism is no longer adequate as a campaign tool.

But the party’s grassroots members are another matter. Many are not happy with their leaders adopting a less confrontational stance towards China, and allowing the KMT to get away with an agenda that downplays identity concerns. Hsiao Bi-khim, a legislator who has long been the DPP’s international spokesperson, recently failed to win a primary campaign to stand again for office because radicals in her constituency viewed her as too moderate. Frank Hsieh is also under intense pressure from within the party, but is holding the moderate line because members recognize him as the only candidate who may be able to defeat Ma Ying-jeou.

Ma also has radicals in his party. They feel he has been insufficiently vigorous in resisting Chen’s many attempts at “Taiwanification” of the island, but like Hsieh he prefers a more moderate approach, punctuated by fierce rhetoric, but in practice shying away from the bitter confrontation that was the hallmark of the last presidential election.

When they were at university Ma and Hsieh were members of the same debating team, ad they both went on to become lawyers. In other words they have much in common and seem to be tentatively staying away from the street fighting style of politics that has characterized this fledgling democracy. The activists in their respective parties are less ready for compromise, but voters just want honesty and competence from their government.

This could mean that Taiwanese democracy is coming of age. Information Minister Shieh, who was a student activist involved in risky street demonstrations against the KMT’s one-party rule, revels in the new atmosphere. He says, “no matter what the result will be, it will be the outcome of a democratic election.”

This enthusiasm for elective politics has not waned despite the disreputable antics of politicians. Millions of Taiwanese tune in to prime time television to watch political debates and turn out in respectable numbers for the numerous elections that are held every year. They may sometimes feel that their politicians have let them down, but they are not looking across the Taiwan Strait to China for a better system of government.

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