The Drama and Amnesia of Taiwan Politics

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Sunday October 6, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The September 17th deadline for independent candidates to register for next year's presidential elections has past, and Taiwan voters can now focus on the narrowed field of candidates and the issues.

And yet while one admires Taiwan's steadily maturing democracy, it also demonstrates a potential for strange and surprising swings.

In the past, voters have certainly shown perceptive brilliance in sorting out the wheat from the chaff to protect their democracy. Still, just when things seem normal, they throw caution to the winds and almost search for vague but dramatic opportunistic flags to follow.

Multiple factors influence such political drama and swings.

One example is the "I'm here and available factor." This bit of drama is traditionally favored by candidates who feel that their rank and/or talents should result in obvious acclamation. They may also not want to risk losing a primary.

While it can be a way to test the waters, it also places a burden on their loyal followers to either nominate them by acclamation or beg them to run.

This results in continued and complicated drama especially when more than one such candidate is in the race as happened this year with an unusual triumvirate.

Most "available" were Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator, Wang Jyn-ping, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je and Hon Hai Precision Industry company founder Terry Gou

Wang indicated he would run if asked. Ko indicated interest and went so far as to form a new party, the Taiwan People's Party (TPP) but then stopped short of being its presidential candidate.

Gou ran in the KMT primaries and placed second. Yet after losing, he did not support the winner, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Guo-yu. Instead he lingered in the wings.

Was he waiting to see if the KMT might switch to him as Han began slipping in the polls? Was he hoping the demand would be great enough that he could run as an independent? No one knows since he dropped out on the last possible day.

Nonetheless, all three kept the media and pundits buzzing and guessing for weeks on end and Ko's parents even caused a stir when they "almost" registered him as a "last minute" independent candidate on September 17.

Ironically, together these three would have made a very strong, formidable team, one that could attract many votes, and possibly win. However, the question remained how could supporters of each bring them together and who would lead?

None of the three of course wanted the thankless job of vice-president, which left little room where all three could be a team.

A related factor adding to drama is the "LY factor,"—the way that parties strategically secure seats in the Legislative Yuan.

By the two-vote system, 34 of the 113 seats in the legislature are proportionately allotted to political parties that get at least 5 percent of the party vote in an election. After voting for a specific district candidate, voters then vote for a party to be represented in the legislature. `

This also can create numerous dramatic and strategic entries. James Soong has repeatedly run for President first as an independent in 2000, after the KMT did choose him as its candidate, and then for the People First Party (PFP), which he founded after losing the 2000 election, in the 2012 election—not so much because he anticipated winning but rather to keep his party in the public eye and so help it gain legislative seats.

In the 2016 elections, the PFP won three legislator-at-large seats.

Nomenclature also has its part in Taiwan politics and candidates must be selectively careful on how they use the words "unification" and "independence."

However, those words can take on positive value if the party hopes that they will add to their "party vote."

Thus in 2000, the dwindling pro-unification New Party (NP) selected the outspoken but non-member political commentator Li Ao as their presidential candidate hoping he would draw attention to it.

For January's election the pro-independence Formosa Alliance chose prominent former vice-president Annette Lu as their presidential candidate.

As former president Chen Shui-bian's vice president, Lu is clearly pro-Taiwan. Her late entry candidacy can be expected to boost that party's chances of getting seats in the legislature.

These dramatic moves and posturing are what add spice and speculation to Taiwan's politics. However, there is one factor, the "amnesia factor" which is more dangerous. This is seen where voters seem to have no memory of the past, even the past decade.

When Ma Ying-jeou was president (2008—2016), he pushed very hard for close economic links with China via the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). ECFA contained numerous items such as reduced tariffs, the "early harvest" selections, jobs created etc. It was signed into law by 2010.

At that point several trade deals had already been worked out; and Taiwan was benefiting from the early harvest where it initially was getting the lion's share. Cross-strait links had been established. Chen Yunlin, then chairman of China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) had visited several times. Chinese tourists were starting to come in. Many concrete trade proposals were on the table. All in all, things were going smoothly.

Yet the public protested that the legislature should not give blanket approval to all ECFA items at once but rather it should go over them one by one. The final chapter for the ECFA was the Sunflower movement protest in 2014.

Fast forward to the present where Han runs simply on the vacuous promise that he will make everyone rich. In contrast, he offers few specifics while at the same time, China's "one country, two systems" promise to Hong Kong is proving to be a lie.

How then could voters forget the protest over a well-planned ECFA and somehow believe the vacuous promises of the inexperienced Han who has a penchant for mahjong?

It is as if they believe that Han can wave a magic wand, pull an economic rabbit out of his hat and everyone will get rich.

This amnesia remains and this is what is most troubling.

Finally, the "lint/gossip factor" adds its bit to the political drama.

The validity of President Tsai Ing-wen's 1984 doctoral degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, like former US president Barack Obama's birth certificate is being questioned.

Consider the reality of the moment.

Taiwan is an embattled democracy. The enemy, China, is constantly at the gates.

China has shown its true colors in its broken promises with Hong Kong. With impunity, it disrupts the cross-strait status quo by "poaching" Taiwan's allies.

It also continues to insist that Taiwan accept the shackles of the bogus "1992 consensus" where Taiwan is part of either side's concept of China.

Tsai has served for almost four years as leader against this enemy. She has kept it at bay, while also keeping the economy stable.

However to some, she does not fit the "purity" of their perception. They would rather turn the nation over to "mahjong" Han than surrender that perception.

Tsai remains on the ramparts. The London School of Economics continues to state that her degree is valid. That does not matter.

Sitting in their comfortable armchairs, and ignoring the mud on the opposition's jacket, the protesters continue to believe that they have found the "disqualifying" lint on their leader's sleeve and the gossip goes on.

Such is the drama of Taiwan politics.

And Gou? He could still technically be drafted by a KMT, which did pull the rug out from under its first 2016 candidate former KMT chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu. Would the KMT do it twice?

No, Taiwan's democracy is not perfect, but then, if one wishes to make comparisons in perfection, the US has problems with the dystopian universe that US President Donald Trump is creating. And to coin a familiar phrase, Prime Minister Boris Johnson "bumbles on" in the UK.