Standing on 'Dangwai' Shoulders

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Friday February 5, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The magnitude of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) recent decisive victory over the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in the January 16 presidential and legislative elections surprised many. It was so large that for some it might have created an irreconcilable fault line for the KMT in Taiwan politics.

That DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen would win the presidency was expected. However that she would have a winning margin of more than 3 million votes startled some. Similarly it had also been expected that the DPP would gain seats in the 113-seat legislature but that it would jump from 40 to an overwhelming majority of 68 seats left observers reeling.

With international observers present, the victory has been one that allowed pundits a wide and fertile range from which to give interpretations and projections. For example, one new feature present in the elections was the emergence of several "new" parties dedicated to social causes. This has been called the "third force" though such judgments seem premature since parties built on social causes have no consistent ideological base to continue to build and too often rely on youth who graduate and move on to career development.

Already evident from this was the fact that only one of those new parties, the New Power Party (NPP) was successful; it captured 3 district seats, and 2 at-large seats. The rest were left high and dry.

In the legislator-at-large vote, the NPP drew less than the already marginalized People's First Party (PFP); its votes could be seen as a transfer from the minority Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), which went from 3 legislator-at-large seats to none

Nonetheless, victory was sweet and long in coming for many and none more so than for the dangwai, (those outside the party). These are the people that deserve credit for Taiwan's democracy and on whose shoulders all that is happening is likely to stand.

The name of this group goes back to the one-party state days of the KMT and the membership is many and almost nebulous. For all in this group the January 16 victory has been more than a victory, it has been a final justification of all their years of work. It is work that should not be forgotten.

The dangwai clearly began to make their mark and draw battle lines for democracy in the 1970s by running in different elections as independents but the Kaohsiung Incident is where they came to the fore. Stymied by not being allowed to form a party for elections, the dangwai chose organized a Human Rights Day on December 10, 1979 in Kaohsiung.

The KMT decided to put an end to this movement by disrupting it and using the turmoil as an excuse to arrest not only the ringleaders but also numerous others involved in any related leadership role. Their trials were to be showcase trials of "dissidents," something that would put them down forever. As an even sterner warning, the murder of Lin Yi-siung's twin daughters and his mother while he was in custody awaiting trial was a message that they should desist.

However, the trials only served to expose the one-party state dominance of the KMT, a party that allegedly supported democracy and the struggles continued into the 1980s. Other dissidents were silenced, Chen Wen-chen and Henry Liu were high profile murders, but there were others and many were imprisoned on trumped up charges.

Dangwai became a name to recognize any and all who challenged the KMT. Many of them who studied or worked in the US became blacklisted.

The DPP was formed in 1986 when opposition parties were still illegal, but finally in 1987 martial law was lifted and multiple parties were allowed. The efforts of the dangwai efforts to wrest power from the KMT continued though now they had the right to belong to a party.

Free elections of the legislature came in 1992 along with the disbanding of the Garrison Command and finally the first direct election of the president in 1996.

Limited success came in 2000 when by luck the KMT ticket split and the DPP's Chen Shui-bian snuck in with 39 per cent of the vote. Chen won again by a narrow margin of 50.1 percent in 2004, but the opposition had never been able to control the legislature.

This struggle proved to be a long one and that is what makes this election so special.

The multi-party system and the right to elect legislators were won by the efforts of that nebulous group, the dangwai. High-profile names are evident, but so many contributed silently.

In today's vote, people would not be allowed to even consider voting for social causes let alone voting for another party without the dangwai. To vote for a social cause is a luxury that they made possible.

Just as there are still people in Taiwan whose lives were affected by the 228 incident and the following White Terror era, so too there are few families whose lives have not been affected by the dangwai. This is an important thought to be taken from these elections.