Chen Wei-Ting’s Run for Miaoli Legislator and Implications for Post-Sunflower Electoral Politics

by Brian Hioe

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Photo credit: 劉世怡

ON DECEMBER 9TH, Chen Wei-Ting of Sunflower Movement fame announced his plans to run for legislator of his native Miaoli. If victorious, Chen would replace KMT Legislator Hsu Yao-Chang, who is vacating his seat as legislator in Miaoli County for the office of Miaoli County Commissioner after a victory in past nine-in-one elections. Chen’s declaration, made on Facebook, was that he would run as an independent and seems to have the support of the Taiwan March group that he and fellow Sunflower Movement leader, Lin Fei-Fan, founded after the end of the Legislative Yuan occupation.

600_phpmtY5kB (1)Chen Wei-Ting at a recent press conference. Photo credit: Liberty Times

Chen’s declaration of his intent to run comes, of course, as a surprise, although there were previous public statements made by Taiwan March that they intended to field their own independent candidates with the cooperation of other third parties. Yet for those who saw in the leaders of the Sunflower Movement the future political leaders of Taiwan, this move by Chen will no doubt be welcomed. For those for who view participation in electoral politics as the best guarantor of civil liberties in Taiwan, a criticism of the Sunflower Movement made was that the energy of the movement was not to be channeled into electoral politics.

In his statement, Chen was emphatic that victory in elections would allow him to use his position to support participants in social movements. Likewise, in declaring his intent to run as an independent, Chen positioned himself outside of the DPP. However, the DPP’s Miaoli legislator, Wu Yi-Chen, announced on December 16th that she will not run for this term and would be in support for Chen’s candidacy. A poll conducted by TVBS who results were released earlier this week suggests that Chen would be victorious in the elections against probable KMT candidate Liu Cheng-hung.

But what are we to make of that Sunflower Movement activists are now running for electoral positions? Even if Sunflower activists may aim at representing the interests of Taiwanese civil society through political candidacy, we might examine the limits and possibilities of Taiwanese electoral politics following the participation of Sunflower Movement activists in electoral politics as candidates. It would be to pose electoral politics as the ultimate horizon of politics to conclude that the political candidacy of Sunflower Movement activists represents the political maturation of Sunflower activists. Yet what would Sunflower Movement activists accomplish through running as political candidates and by way of participation in electoral campaigns?

A Longtime Activist

WHILE FOR MUCH of Taiwanese society, the Sunflower Movement represents the first public debut of a number of promising young leaders, for anyone who has kept their fingers on the pulse of Taiwanese civil society for the past several years, the names of Chen Wei-Ting and Lin Fei-Fan are not new. Chen and Lin Fei-Fan had already been known for participation in social issue activism for some time, particularly in regards to the Anti-Media Monopoly campaign that was the most prominent manifestation of tensions about Chinese economic control of Taiwan before the Sunflower Movement. Though overshadowed in retrospective history by the Sunflower Movement, the Anti-Media Monopoly campaign concerned itself with the buying out of Taiwanese media companies by Chinese companies, and the subsequent growth in power of pro-China media in Taiwan.

Chen first achieved public notoriety in 2012, following a series of actions part of the Anti-Media Monopoly campaign that drew controversy. In July of that year, China Times Weekly deputy editor-in-chief Lin Chao-Hsin threatened to sue Chen over that Chen posted an image on Facebook of a news report by pro-China television news network CTiTV, owned by the Want Want Group popularly a target of the the Anti-Media Monopoly Campaign, stating that students had been paid off to protest. While Chen was not the only person to share that image, he was the one signaled out by Lin Chao-Hsin, although Lin Chao-Hsin seems not to have filed his lawsuit as he claimed he would in the end. 

Chen Wei-Ting (right) during the “Chen Wei-Ting Legislative Yuan Incident”. Photo credit: House365

Chen’s notoriety only grew during the so-called “Chen Wei-Ting Legislative Yuan Incident” in December 2012, in which Chen publicly criticized Minister of Education Jiang Weining for requesting university administrations to rein in student protestors during a session of the legislature in which DPP Legislator Cheng Li-Chiun invited members of civil society organizations to speak. Chen drew controversy over the strong language he used in calling Jiang a hypocrite and liar, resulting in an apology by National Tsinghua University administration, where Chen is enrolled as a graduate student, and a subsequent unwillingness of Taiwanese legislature to allow members of the public to testify during legislative sessions for fear of a repeat of the incident.

While during the Sunflower Movement, Chen and Lin Fei-Fan were the most prominent student leaders of the Sunflower Movement among the student occupiers of the Taiwanese Legislative Yuan, at the time of the Sunflower Movement it seems as though Chen’s close collaborator Lin Fei-Fan was more prominent between the two of them. Likely this was due to Lin’s forceful manner of speaking and his distinctive attire at all times during the Legislative Yuan occupation in constantly wearing a green army jacket. But no less than Lin and perhaps more so, Chen’s history in activism has been a long one. 

Rhetoric aimed at appealing to Taiwan’s young and, more broadly, Taiwanese civil society, adopted by many politicians following the Sunflower Movement. But it is in light of his long history of activism that we can take Chen’s claims to stand for the interests of Taiwanese civil society at face value. That Miaoli, where Chen intends to stand for office, has been a flashpoint of Taiwanese social issue activism in recent years over the issue of forced land evictions, only drives the point home about what Chen seeks to represent and what kind of issues he would concern himself with in office.

A Post-Ko Independent Candidacy

WHY IS IT now that Chen would declare candidacy for public office? Where Chen and other Sunflower Movements activists were previously criticized for disinterest in electoral politics, Ko Wen-Je’s independent candidacy for the position of mayor of Taipei and eventual victory as a pan-Green candidate over KMT candidate Sean Lien during recent nine-in-one elections has attracted no small amount of attention from Taiwanese activists and members of Taiwanese civil society. 

As noted by many observers, Ko’s campaign for public office was distinctive because of his much vaunted stance of independence from any of the major Taiwanese political parties. Ko’s campaign was defined by its appeal to participants of Taiwanese civil society. Despite running as a pan-Green candidate after defeating the DPP candidate for pan-Green candidacy, Ko highlighted the bipartisan nature of his politics. This was the rhetoric of “beyond Blue and Green,” in suggesting that candidates for public office should steer clear of the political apparatus of either of the major two parties in order to maintain governmental transparency and to advocate the public interest without party-based political entanglements.

8976958Ko Wen-Je at his victory rally on November 29th. Photo credit: Reuters/AP

Ko’s victory over Sean Lien, for many a representative of corrupt, politically entrenched, and oligarchical KMT party politics, was seen by many as heralding a new era in Taiwanese politics. Apart from that the general defeat of the KMT across Taiwan posed significant implications for cross-strait relations between Taiwan and China in the post-Sunflower political paradigm, for many, Ko’s campaign marked the advent of a new kind of political candidate—a truly democratic candidate who stood for the people and who acted with the backing of Taiwanese civil society.

Of course, part of the matter is that in wake of nine-in-one elections, a political slot has opened up in Miaoli County with a vacant legislative seat opening up after the victory of KMT Legislator Hsu Yao-chang in running for the position of County Commissioner. But the victory of Ko has proved something for Chen and people like Chen. Indeed, Chen has expressed his admiration for Ko in attempting to stand above Blue versus Green partisan politics before, stating on social media that he felt “chills” after witnessing Ko shoot down Lien’s appeals to partisan politics during a televised public debate. It will be in the political terrain of post-Ko electoral politics that Chen and people like Chen may stand for public office. 

And though Miaoli has traditionally voted KMT, past nine-in-one elections saw the victory of pan-Green over many of pan-Blue’s traditional northern territories. The past nine-in-one defeat of the KMT has emboldened further challenges to local KMT power across Taiwan. As Chen has stated that he would be banking upon Miaoli’s young to support him, in particular, those active in social activism, the electoral victory of Taiwanese civil society—most prominently foregrounded by Ko’s victory in Taipei—has contributed to more and more young people willing to take on the KMT.

Populist Politics After the Sunflower Movement

NEVERTHELESS, at the same time, in appreciation of that Chen’s running for legislator may represent a shift in Taiwanese politics, we might also point towards the limitations of Chen’s political approach. It is, in fact, to be questioned if the “Ko Consensus” genuinely represents anything new for Taiwanese politics so far as it is a form of populist politics.

With the accommodation of the DPP to electoral politics after so many years of serving purely as the opposition, large tracts of Taiwanese society became disillusioned with the DPP. The perception became that the DPP was, after all, just another political party, and that the DPP and the KMT may not have been so different in the end. This led to general disenchantment with electoral politics from Taiwanese society, particularly among Taiwan’s young.

Chen Wei-Ting (left) and Lin Fei-Fan (right) during the Sunflower Movement in the occupied chambers of the Legislative Yuan. Photo credit: Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images

But one must remember how, for so many years, the DPP’s role as opposition was founded upon a form of populist politics. Given the comparative lack of resources of the DPP compared to the KMT before the victory of Chen Shui-Bian, the DPP’s political leverage was founded upon mass appeals to the public, sometimes founded upon Mainlander versus native Taiwanese identity politics. Of course, ethnic based populism has decreased in recent years, with distinctions between Mainlander Taiwanese and native Taiwanese fading among the younger generation. But where the DPP was criticized as an troublemaking party was because its populist appeals were seen as unnecessarily disruptive to the public and contravening rule of law in mandated legal process. 

A victorious Chen Wei-Ting would no doubt see similar criticisms. So far as Chen would be dependent upon support from Taiwanese civil society, his backing would largely be populist in nature and attacks conducted by him upon more traditional lawmakers would be viewed as populist disruptions. 

While behind the criticism of those who criticized Chen and other Sunflower Movement activists for disinterest in electoral politics was sometimes just the hope that Chen and others would throw their support to a then-beleaguered DPP, populist appeals by Chen and other independents could serve to force the DPP to be more proactive. Yet we might also point to some of the limitations of populist politics.

For one, as evidenced by the DPP to begin with, participation in politics through electoral politics necessarily demands a degree of accommodation to existing political circumstances, not only in order to function as part of the governmental system, but also because appeals to populist politics sometimes does require backing away from what will draw public controversy in order to maintain one’s public appeal. Chen may have to tone down some of his rhetoric in office. 

Indeed, arguably, this was already the case in the Sunflower Movement. Despite that Chen’s personal political sympathies orient towards the political Left, as was not uncommon among Legislative Yuan occupiers, and he and other prominent Sunflower Movement leaders are unequivocally pro-Taiwanese independence, they closeted these positions for fear of alienating members of the public. Would attaining public office force more closeting of radical positions on his part?

10514473_586868964755323_4836080865879172775_nChen Wei-Ting holding a sign calling for referendum reform in September. Photo credit: Taiwan March

And along these lines, if Chen is able to stand for public office and win, what would Chen or similar candidates be able to accomplish in office as isolated individuals? There is no so small shortage of cases in Taiwan or elsewhere where an independent politically progressive candidate wins public office and is able to use public office as a platform to stump for a non-mainstream political platform. But while any number of these candidates may hold office, and they may be able to accomplish something for constituents by succeeding in changing the laws within their respective municipal jurisdictions, in the absence of a nationwide political movement, they will not accomplish much when it comes to influencing society writ large.

Towards a New Dangwai Movement?

IN MUCH DISCUSSION of Taiwanese electoral politics after the Sunflower Movement, perhaps what has gone too little discussed is the phenomenon of small, political outcroppings which began to appear and run for office, rarely succeeding, but serving as means of raising awareness about certain social issues. Example include Le Flanc Radical, the Tree Party, Formoshock Society, Youth Occupy Politics, the revival of the Green Party, and other groups, some of which allied themselves with the Taiwan Solidarity Union.

This was not exactly a new phenomenon: as dissatisfaction with the DPP took root, before the Sunflower Movement new political parties and small independent political groupings had already begun to appear. But after the Sunflower Movement, all at once, many groups began to form. 

In the case where independent populist candidates as Chen may appear and leverage upon their reputation as activists, perhaps what may be necessary for individual populist candidates to unite with those seeking to form parties outside of the DPP and KMT in order that a viable third party can be formed in Taiwanese politics which can challenge the DPP and the KMT on its own grounds. However, the obstacle to this is that precisely the reason why many of these groups have come to exist is because of bad blood within Taiwanese activist politics. 

F0305-帆廷組「島國前進」-尚無參選打算Chen Wei-Ting, Lin Fei-Fan, and others announcing the formation of Taiwan March on May 18th. Photo credit: CNA

Formoshock Society was, of course, formed by two Sunflower Movement leaders that split with Chen Wei-Ting and Lin Fei-Fan during the Sunflower Movement and have come into conflict regarding issues as Chinese student Clover Tsai’s running for student body president at Tamkang University. The Tree Party, likewise, is a split from the Green Party. Differences among groups need to be overcome, but it does not do to merely smooth over what are substantial differences that needed to be debated, either. Future cooperation between these groups may also involve cooperation with the Taiwan Solidarity Union, probably Taiwan’s most powerful third party. Of course, it must be kept in mind that the TSU was formed by Lee Teng-Hui after expulsion from the KMT to establish a more conservative pro-independence party than the DPP in the spectrum of Taiwanese politics. But what is evident is that a number of small parties operating on their own or a number of individual populist candidates cannot challenge the large-scale political apparatus of the KMT or the DPP. 

Is what is needed a new party? That may be questioned. But what is needed is likely a new movement, a movement which will necessarily have differing political tendencies within it, but a unified movement nonetheless. Yet when we speak of a movement operating outside of currently existing electoral politics in Taiwan, that necessarily summons up the specter of the Dangwai Movement—in Chinese, literally the “Outside of the Party Movement.”

So far as the Dangwai Movement sought to resist the KMT and form a second political party in Taiwan, it culminated in the ascendancy of the DPP. The Dangwai Movement was always an unstable synthesis, since it united a number of political groups that did not have any agreement apart from their opposition to the KMT. But in retrospective view of history, that the Dangwai Movement ultimately culminated in the ascendance of the DPP, has led to activists in recent years attempting to pry the history of the Dangwai Movement as a social activist movement apart from that history which ended in the DPP. For a new Dangwai Movement or a movement along similar lines, it may be necessary to oppose both parties: KMT and DPP alike. Such a movement may still be broadly populist in orientation, but allow for more strategic political considerations to be made in a manner that an unorganized movement would not be able to accomplish.

We might take stock of that two-party democracy is a political formation, which is more or less universal among the world’s advanced capitalist countries. An advanced capitalist country with a viable third party is hard to come by indeed, much less in Asia where the achievement of two-party democracy is usually a rather recent development. While recent years has seen the formation of Leftist third parties in countries facing significant economic upheaval, prominent examples being Die Linke in Germany and SYRIZA in Greece, third parties of this sort have had to steer the course of conservative accommodation to political reality nonetheless. Yet in the case of Taiwan, where questions of the desirability of such a third party are still far from being on the table, we might begin by calling for a unified movement to oppose the current impasse of two-party democracy. And so, though the foundations of a new movement are still far from sight, we can point towards such possibilities.