Populism, Democracy and Taiwan

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Wednesday July 24, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Taiwan is full of surprises, but one thing is certain, democracy is alive and doing very well. This comes in the strangest but not always the best ways.

On this topic, former British prime minister, Winston Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms."

How true.

Democracy certainly is that. It is desirable, but it is never perfect. Instead it remains a work in continuous process. In it, voters must always be on their toes and sift information as they choose their leaders.

A clear sign of this process is the re-current emergence of populism, the political action where ordinary people feel their fears and concerns have been disregarded by an established governing elite. This forces them to break from years of traditional voting patterns and seek new recourse.

Not only has populism shown its head in Taiwan, but also it has done so in the most unusual place, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) where Kaohsiung mayor, Han Kuo-yu (チ嵓・ì) vaulted upward from relative obscurity to become the party's presidential candidate.

The KMT had once ruled this island nation with an iron-fisted, authoritarian grip. Voting was more of a sham procedure where most positions and results had been lined up beforehand and followed a set hierarchy.

So how did this once top-down party with its tight one-party state come to this?

The camel ironically got his nose in the tent when the KMT was forced to accept a multi-party system back in 1987. From then on, it began to lose its grip in multiple ways both within and without the party. Factions like the New Party rose to stress that it was losing its dominant pro-China direction; that waned.

The biggest test came in 2000 when the party should have let the more popular and charismatic, James Soong (ァコキ。キì) be the presidential candidate but instead stuck with next in line Lien Chan (ウsセヤ). That was the high water mark of the old guard.

In this most recent primary, the major surprise is that none of the traditional political power families participated.

KMT Vice Chairman Hau Lung-bin (ーqタsルy) sat this one out. Lien Chan's son Sean (ウsウモ、å) was nowhere to be seen. KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih (ァdエークq) held on to what he had and was not risking anything more. KMT Legislator Wang Jin-pyng (、ェュ) reserved judgement, and former president Ma Ying-jeou (ーィュ^、E) floated the idea of a comeback, but quickly gave that up. He sensed that his day had passed with the Sunflower movement.

Even former KMT chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu (ャxィqャW), who had won the primary in 2016, only to be later replaced, decided it is more favorable to commute back and forth to China, where authoritarianism is still in vogue.

The two strongest candidates were relative outliers, Han and Hon Hai Precision Industry Co founder Terry Gou (ウ「・xサハ). Even moderate former New Taipei City mayor Eric Chu (ヲカ・゚ュロ), the only traditional candidate, fell to a weak third.

There were two other vanity candidates, former Taipei County commissioner Chou Hsi-wei and Sun Yat-sen School president Chang Ya-chung, who put their names in just to remind people that they were still alive.

So what happened?

Churchill again quipped on democracy: "The best argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with the average voter."

In Taiwan, that could be re-phrased as a "5 minute conversation with the average Kaohsiung voter who voted for Han."

Populism came to Taiwan. In some ways this fell in line with several recent world happenings. In the US, President Donald Trump who lost by nearly 3 million votes, still won due to the outdated electoral college system. The UK got Brexit though many are still unsure on what that will be and when it will happen. France on the other hand, dodged the bullet when President Macron beat French National Rally leader, Marine Le Pen.

In Taiwan, therefore, the KMT got the big-talking Han Kuo-yu where it seemed voters just wanted someone new and full of promises.

However, all this also demonstrated that the 21st century has become an age of gaslighters, where those bold enough to speak nonsense can catch the attention of a populace fed up with what has gone on.

However, this is not a step for the better and other forms of government do not excel.

Dictators may have their moments, but history shows they always have trouble with succession.

In the Philippines, the economy was wrecked by Ferdinand Marcos; he created the fake need for martial law to ensure his dictatorship.

Mao Zedong unified the PRC but when he died, those party members in power made sure that the "Gang of Four" would not replace him. President Xi Jinping now hopes to restore a permanent presidency but with a lowering digital growth in economy.

North Korea has President Kim Jung-un securely in place after he dispatched his brother and uncle, but who can replace him when he is gone?

Russian strongman, President Vladimir Putin, stated that he feels liberalism is obsolete, but Russia faces its own future challenge. What will happen when he is gone? He is going to leave a legacy of entrenched oligarchs that will be hard to overcome.

No, the other systems don't have that much to offer in a long-term range or strategy.

So, the next question for Taiwan has become: Will this populism spread and continue to grow beyond the KMT?

This is what the Democratic Progressive Party needs to be concerned about as a potential donnybrook of a presidential race is shaping up and the playing field is not yet set in stone.

Independent Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je may still throw his hat in the ring. He certainly can wonder how Han jumped from barely being elected Mayor of Kaohsiung to running for president. And he can tout that he has four years more experience with a larger city where he won as an independent.

And then Terry Gou, may also consider running as an independent. He can tout his business experience to appeal to the populace.

On the other hand, in Taiwan, the only stable thing may be President Tsai Ing-wen, who had a mild challenge from William Lai.

So voters must ask: What does Han's selection mean? Is it just a changing of the guard in the KMT? Is this a wave of populism that may peak?

Are many of Han's KMT supporters, those who want to avoid coming up through the party's hierarchical ranks? Do they seek a new bandwagon?

Or is the KMT still struggling with an identity crisis where voters have developed certain disgust and malaise with officials who take their loyalty for granted?

The game is afoot. China is in the wings trying to influence the elections and populism has shown its head.

Democracy is alive and well in Taiwan, but how will the voters respond? The democratic 2020 elections are proving to be a testing ground for the rest of the world to watch.