Democracy field notes

Democracy field notes

Taiwan: A Great Choosing Day is Coming [Part One]

The world’s tallest green skyscraper, Taipei 101, stands 508 metres above the streets of Taipei’s Xinyi district.

For democrats, made in Taiwan is a seductive brand with definite global appeal. ‘Through the promotion of its democratic ideals’, says a stylishly confident pamphlet published recently by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Taiwan has managed to build a significant amount of soft power around the world.’ The truth buried in these words is about to be put to the test. In just over a week, a great choosing day is happening within a remarkable polity whose citizens, twenty years ago, against all odds, defeated a military dictatorship and have since become rather good at supporting free and fair elections, and making the results stick.

Taiwanese citizens seem to have a passion for politics. Some of them are disgruntled. The Sunflower activists who occupied the national parliament earlier this year are not the only citizens disaffected with the way things are heading. More than a few Taiwanese are convinced their politicians are too soft on China, and that, if nothing is done, Taiwan will one day soon find itself trapped in the arms of a giant panda despatched from the Beijing Zoo. Their anxiety helps explain why Taiwanese citizens take elections seriously, and why they’re such clangorous affairs. Although razzamatazz could easily have been a political word made in Taiwan, public support for the highly professional Central Election Commission runs high, as does citizens’ support for a multi-party system, which seems to quicken their senses. Little wonder: in the tiny archipelago that is not a sovereign country, voters over 20 years of age enjoy real choices among pan-blue (KMT) and pan-green (DPP) candidates with quite different views about many issues, including the most serious matter of all: the smouldering tensions between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.

Sunflower student occupation, Taipei (March 21st 2014). The big poster reads: ‘Mum and Dad don’t worry. We’re safe’ kokuya/flickr

The ‘nine-in-one’ mega-elections are to be held on November 29th. The campaigns are in full swing. Although the presidential and parliamentary elections aren’t happening until 2016, and while these November elections are confined to local government (they are called ‘nine-in-one’ because they affect its nine tiers, from township and county chiefs and councillors through to municipal councillors and mayors), they have a much wider significance, for several reasons.

Ma Ying-jeou, President of Taiwan and Chairman of the Kuomintang Party (KMT)

Most obviously, the great choosing day will mark the twentieth anniversary of the surprise victory of Chen Shui-bian, the first directly elected mayor of Taipei whose triumph in 1994 upset the balance of forces in Taiwanese politics and helped break the back of a nasty military dictatorship. The November 29th elections will also provide an indirect verdict on the performance of the KMT President Ma Ying-jeou, who has tried lately to rescue his damaged reputation with cleverly crafted statements in support of the Hong Kong umbrella movement, laced with hints about the need for China to embrace free elections and to abandon the current ‘one country, two systems’ principle. “Democracy, which people in Hong Kong are pursuing,‘ he told the New York Times recently, 'already exists in Taiwan’.

The bold rhetoric may turn out to be too little too late, for many Taiwanese citizens have come to suspect that his whole foreign policy approach has been much too soft on Beijing. The nine-in-one elections are in this sense a plebiscite on President Ma’s performance, as well as a test of the level of public support for his KMT party’s candidate for the mayor of Taipei, Sean Lien. Up against an independent candidate, Ko Wen-je, who is supported by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Sean is at the moment trailing badly. Hence his use of every trick in the political book: throwing thick muck at his opponent; wheeling out his smiling wife at every photo opportunity; and sidling up to President Ma Ying-jeou, who doubles as chairman of the KMT. Sean is also playing up his personal battle with cancer and his recovery from a mistaken assassination attempt in 2010; and saying repeatedly that the coming election is nothing but a choice for the KMT in the 2016 presidential election.

The coming mega-elections are significant for yet another reason: they will decide who runs the bustling capital city of Taipei. In Taiwanese politics, the political importance of the struggle to win the Taipei mayorship is hard to overestimate. Since the beginning of the transition to democracy two decades ago, every candidate who became elected mayor of Taipei went on to become president. The fascinating thing is that this time things may turn out differently. Taipei has traditionally been a KMT stronghold, but not much is currently going right for the KMT’s Sean Lien. Not only is he trailing badly in the polls to an independent, Ko Wen-je, who is being backed in turn by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Waiting in the wings, cleverly biding her time, is Tsai Ing-wen, the chair of the opposition DPP, her eyes fixed firmly on becoming the first-ever directly elected woman president of Taiwan.

Tsai Ing-wen currently serves as chair of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and has her eyes on the 2016 presidential elections. Huang Ming-tang

Then there is the vexed question of the cross-straits relationship. The nine-in-one elections give a brand new meaning to Walt Whitman’s poetic description of the ‘swordless conflict’ of voting, the ‘choosing day’ when a ‘ballot-shower from East to West’ flings citizens temporarily into the subjunctive tense, confronting them with hard choices about how, from that moment on, they are to live their daily lives. A ballot shower from the East is indeed heading towards mainland China. It could even be said that these nine-in-one elections are a re-enactment or repeat performance of the umbrella uprising that has gripped Hong Kong during the past few months. With a bit of luck, barring unforeseen violence, corruption or fiddled results, these elections will arrow a simple but powerful message in the direction of Beijing: ‘Comrades, citizens, friends, please take note! Look how we practise free and fair elections in our region of the world. Join us. Grant free and fair elections not just to the citizens of Hong Kong. Extend votes for the highest political levels throughout the whole territory of the People’s Republic of China.’

To be continued.