Clear Signs of Change in Taiwan's Political Landscape

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Monday February 16, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

At the end of World War II, when other nations were being granted the right to self-determination through the United Nation's Charter, Taiwan's struggle for democracy had just begun and it entered its winter of discontent. That winter included the White Terror, some 38 years of Martial Law and continuous one party-state rule by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). The hopes of Taiwanese that their democracy would flourish were muted by its slow progress. It was only 4 decades later in 1992 that the public could elect their legislators and 1996 when they could choose their president. Despite having multiple political parties, even then Taiwan still seemed in doldrums that kept it from emerging as a full-fledged democracy. Voters of the two major parties seemed in gridlock of only voting for their party's candidate. But this past year the waited for reversal came as a significant part of the population appeared to be shaking off what some call the vestiges of the KMT's Stockholm Syndrome where voters thought it was the only party capable to properly handle the economy and the entire country.

This change is no doubt due to the voting age of the successive generations that were born after the lifting of Martial Law were coming of age and growing up with a different sense of history and its teachings. The Strawberry generation came and was followed by the Wild Strawberries phase; as each generation was born and entered the education system, it did not have the burden of the past indoctrination. The current generation what could be called the post 1996 consensus and the Sunflower generation show that they believe that Taiwan can choose its leaders from either party and could hold them accountable for steering the nation in the correct path.

Part of this can be attributed to how the people have lost their confidence in Ma Ying-jeou and realize with his lack of progress, that he has been more style than substance. He could no longer count on the traditional ramrod tactics despite his party having the majority in the Legislative Yuan. But the greatest signs of hope are seen in the recent election and aftermath of the two cities of Taipei and Tainan.

One of the biggest changes this past election was the election of Independent Ko Wen-je as Mayor of Taipei. Taipei has been a pan-blue stronghold throughout the years. The only time that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had won was when the KMT split their vote with two rival candidates. At that time Chen Shui-bian won with 43.6 per cent of the vote; and the following election even though he had been a popular mayor, he still lost to Ma Ying-jeou. That is part of why the election of Ko was significant. In this election the DPP did not enter a candidate and preferred to back the independent Ko. The KMT entered a scion of a wealthy KMT family, Sean Lien. Thus it was the KMT against an independent.

Ko's victory was not marginal; it was outstanding. He received 853,983 votes, which was 57.1 per cent of the total. The KMT candidate Sean Lien received 609,932 votes and 40.8 per cent of the total. What was more surprising, however, would come when people looked at the past numbers. Ko had received both a greater number of votes than Hau Lung-bin had ever gotten either in 2010 and or in 2006 as well as a greater percentage than Hau. Ko had 57.1 percent of the Taipei vote; whereas in the past Hau had gotten 55.6 per cent in 2010 and 53 per cent in 2006.

On the other side of the coin, Sean Lien had gotten less votes than Su Tseng-chang in 2010 and less than Chen Shui-bian in either time that Chen had run in 1994 and 1998. Percentage wise, Lien came off even worse; his 40.82 per cent of the vote was not only less than that of Su and/or Chen, it was even less than the DPP's loss in 2006 where Frank Hsieh with only 525,869 votes had gotten 40.89 per cent of the vote. The only DPP candidate that Lien could claim to have beaten in percentage numbers was Lee Ying-yuan who lost to Ma Ying-jeou in 2002; Lee had garnered 35 per cent of the vote at that time.

Whether Ko will be a good mayor or not will be tested in the coming four years, but the significance of this should not be lost. Taipei has long been considered a pan-Blue stronghold. It was not just a case that some of the KMT had not voted for Lien or that some did not vote at all. The voter turnout was the second largest in Taipei history with 1,498,901 and was only succeeded by that of 1,494,046 in 1998 when Ma Ying with 51.1 per cent of the vote defeated Chen Shui-bian's 45.9 per cent. No, the changes in voting demographics with voters voting for the best candidate regardless of party had passed the tipping point even in Taipei.

The second major revelation came in the city of Tainan. There the DPP had won in one of its traditional strongholds. The unusual news came in the aftermath when City Councilors were selecting the City Council Speaker. Since DPP had 28 seats of 57 in the city council and the KMT had only 16, it was anticipated that the DPP candidate would easily win. That did not happen; the DPP candidate received only 26 votes while the KMT candidate got 29. Vote buying which has been a continuous legacy of the KMT one-party state days reared its head. Its roots run deep on both sides of the aisle. Both parties had personnel involved either in either vote buying or receiving money for votes.

Here the voters and all parties as well as independents learned a clear lesson for the future; no party is completely clean. Mayor William Lai, the refused to convene the city council for the guilt was evident on all sides. Finally both parties joined forces in condemning the practice of vote buying.

This all augurs well for the Presidential and Legislative elections that will be coming in 2016. The winter of Taiwan's discontent has not yet completely passed, but the populace is learning and growing more and more critical and analytical. The people of Taiwan have much to be hopeful for the future and they can best perhaps remember the words of Shelly, "If winter comes can spring be far behind."