Reflections Eight Months Ahead of 2016 Elections in Taiwan
by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Presidential Office/Public Domain
This is the first of a two-part series reflecting on electoral politics in America and Taiwan. The first part of the series will be a comparison and contrast of the electoral cycle to date in America and Taiwan. The second will attempt to look at the election cycle in America and Taiwan from an international perspective seeking to explore how they are globally related.
AS THE STORY GOES, Soviet Premier Nikolai Khrushchev once made the comment to his son that American foreign policy was altogether too unpredictable during election season, sometimes verging on madness. This would seem to be at least one of the reasons for Khrushchev’s tendency to delay major foreign policy negotiations with the United States until after election season was safely over, although this would in fact seem to have been a contributing factor to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Indeed, for those of us that live in electoral democracies, sometimes it seems as though election season is a periodic bout of madness which society feels compelled to put itself through every few years. And as we draw closer to 2016 elections, it would seem that this period of madness is upon us once more.
Though it proves too early to forecast the results of 2016 elections in either Taiwan or America, we might use this time to provide some sketches as to how elections are shaping up to be at this juncture. Namely, we might point towards a homology between the situation in America and in Taiwan.
Broadly, we might point towards the structural condition between two-party liberal democracies that operate under a free market economic system as the reason for similarities between the situation in Taiwanese and American elections. In this light, we might point towards where electoral democracy stands on much more precarious grounds than in America, as is more generally reflective of the means by which attempts to hold Taiwan up as a fully-founded democracy have sometimes assumed a stable foundation for electoral democracy based on rule of law which exists in the United States but not in Taiwan.
2016: The Year of the Female Presidential Candidate?
IN PART, this set of reflections is prompted by the rather banal observation that in both Taiwan and America, the center-Left parties of the Democratic Progressive Party and Democratic Party will probably both be fielding a female presidential candidate: Tsai Ing-Wen and Hillary Clinton. Of course, to disabuse ourselves of the notion that more women in political office necessarily means anything more progressive for women’s rights or progressive politics, we can look at the historical precedent of Margaret Thatcher—one of the more historically significant female elected heads of government of the 20th century, if not, of course, also a strikingly reactionary one.
Yet it is true that Tsai and Clinton would both be the first female elected heads of government for their respective countries if elected. Tsai, then, would be the second female head of state in East Asia after South Korea’s Park Geun-Hye. It is probably a sign that both countries are ready for a female elected president that there has been a somewhat surprising lack of commentary touting the historical nature of each candidate as a female presidential candidate, though this may also be because both Tsai and Clinton have each served as presidential candidates in the past.
Of course, the patriarchal structure of electoral politics in both Taiwan and the US contextualizes these women as those who have “made it in a man’s world,” and both are denigrated on grounds of sexuality. We might examine Tsai in comparison to Chen Shui-Bian’s vice president, Annette Lu, for example, where Lu was denigrated for a perception that she was too masculine—or Shih Ming-De’s allegation that Tsai was a closeted lesbian and that this somehow made her unfit for being president of Taiwan because it conflicts with the presidential responsibility of public openness. Though it seems that commentary in a similar vein about Clinton has run its course this time around, seeing as she first put herself forward as a presidential candidate eight years ago and we already went through this once before, there seem to be less high-profile attacks on Clinton on the basis of sexuality in recent memory.
In the cases of both Tsai and Clinton, as the tension of election season ratchets up, we see attacks on both on the basis of sexuality again. Of course, Clinton is safely married with grown children; she is safely heterosexual. But where Tsai is unmarried, Clinton only faces accusations of homosexuality from unhinged members of the political Right or the tabloid press. In both Taiwan and America, much discourse about the nation-state revolves around the generational reproduction of the nation-state through the heterosexual, normative family and the ability of the heterosexual family to reproduce the nation-state in the next generation through progeny. This belief is common to both center-Left and center-Right parties, ungirding electoral politics as a whole and the discourse of civic respectability it is dependent upon to function.
Hillary and Tsai: The Only Option?
BEYOND SURFACE LEVEL comparisons, one is struck by the fact that both Tsai and Clinton have founded their electoral campaigns on similar platforms. Namely, both have made strong showings as frontrunner presidential candidates of their respective center-Left parties with a strong likelihood of not only nomination of their respective parties but also presidential victory.
With both Tsai and Clinton, there is the discursive notion that both would only need to make showings in order to clinch the nomination of their respective parties. And predictions of the victory of both in presidential elections as being inevitable were also not commonplace. After a period of much uncertainty, it was predicted after the defeat of the KMT in nine-in-one elections that a Tsai victory next year was highly likely, although until very recently, the power of the KMT party-apparatus still seemed a strong threat to a Tsai victory. In the case of Clinton, it has been long discussed that a Clinton victory would apparently be statistically insurmountable for the Republicans.
Tsai and Clinton both emerge in a situation where the center-Right party has no strong candidate at present, but the center-Left party already seems to have a clear political candidate lined up. Given time, the Republican Party will produce presidential candidates without having to go through as contorted a process as what KMT faces in the present, in which the standing president of the nation and recently former party chairman, Ma Ying-Jeou, has to lambast the current party chairman for not putting himself forward as a candidate.
Nevertheless, we can also note the similar basis upon which Tsai and Clinton present themselves as political candidates. Tsai and Clinton both present themselves as the only alternatives in a situation without alternatives and, in that way, as candidates who inevitably would have to be picked. This uncertainty seems to be a structural condition of electoral politics, it never being absolutely certain as to who the victors and who the losers of an election will be and there always being room for surprise reversals—the recent victory of conservatives in the UK election being a good example.
But we might remember that Tsai and Clinton made late entrances into the electoral campaign, after a long period of speculation as to whether they would run or not, and a long period of fear that Tsai or Clinton would not run—this despite predictions of their assured victory. This is, of course, simply the art of being a politician, where it would have actually been counterproductive for a Tsai or Clinton campaign to enter while bragging about inevitable victory. That might have, in fact, foreclosed the possibility of actual victory.
Lingering Traces of Authoritarianism in Taiwanese Electoral Government
WE MAY THROUGH this lens examine where electoral politics between Taiwan and the US differ. To provide a vaguely unquantifiable assertion, Taiwanese society often seems more intensely politicized than American society during election season. More generally, it is because much more is at stake in Taiwan with every election than America. America, as world superpower, faces no inherent threats to its existence in the manner that Taiwan faces an existential threat from China daily.
With each election, Taiwan faces a set of threats from China aimed at affecting Taiwan’s choice of government. It is true we actually need to evaluate China’s threats against Taiwan during each election cycle as not always directly aimed at the long-term end goal of achieving unification, but also aimed at more short-term goals of maintaining an administration in Taiwan whose policy is more amenable to China. As such, it is true that China sometimes takes a more circuitous route in seeking to affecting Taiwan during elections, where sometimes analysis of China’s attempts to influence Taiwan tend to be reductive in light of China’s long-term goals of annexation. Regardless, it goes without saying that America never faces threats from other nations about its future choice of administration, but Taiwan does.
It is such, that as evidenced in the process of electoral politics, the Taiwanese government is founded on less stable grounds than two-party electoral politics in America. Political scientists studying Taiwan have perhaps been too hasty to find a set point by which they can declare the process of democratization is completed, by which Taiwan is “normalized” into two-party democracy in the western mold. So we have had different benchmarks for completed democratization asserted through the years, whether the Chen Shui-Bian administration as marking the end of KMT power, the Ma Ying-Jeou administration as marking Huntington’s “two-turnover” test for democratization, or that this endpoint is to be achieved sometime in the future because of the lingering traces of authoritarianism.
As “ideal types” of government like the “two-party electoral democracy” are never fully realized, it may be more productive to think of democratization less as a process by which there is any set endpoint but as a process by which the processes of democracy are overwritten onto the lingering history and structures dating from the martial law period, as in a palimpsest. Structures and institutions dating from the authoritarian period may be replaced with other, more democratic structures, coexisting alongside structures and institutions that manage to have avoided significant change in spite of the end of the authoritarian period. But, regardless, in both cases, the lingering traces of the past never truly fade—or at least do not fade away in their entirety across such historically brief periods of time as just a few decades.
Electoral Parties in Taiwan as Compared to the United States
AS WE SEE quite clearly in the case of KMT, while some structures of government have been “democratized”, others are far from being “democratized.” As a recent example illustrates, control over Taiwan’s foreign policy remains quite largely in KMT hands. For example, the KMT has the ability to conduct one-on-one negotiations with China’s CCP but the DPP does not have any capability to do so. Of course, American foreign policy is directly an instrument of a central government; foreign policy is directly negotiated by the presidential administration. No one party has the capacity to influence direction of foreign policy as a matter of fiat.
In this sense, reflecting the stable grounds of two-party democracy in America, both the Democratic and Republican Party submit to overarching rule of law. This is not so in Taiwan, where the KMT is in many cases unaccountable to central government—and this is a result of that the history of the authoritarian period has not faded away entirely, with disproportionate KMT power on a scale which differs quite entirely from in the United States in the realm of government institutions it is able to exert unduly influence over. The KMT’s grip over key institutions in the realm of foreign policy or elsewhere is different from in the US, where it is true that different government institutions may drift towards different political orientations by virtue of internal constitution of their membership, but the capacity to rein in institutions’ ultimate subordination to central administration exists in a way that it does not in Taiwan.
The Republican Party and Democratic Party are both dominated by corporatist interest, the former a bit more than the latter, but this does not approach the disproportionate power of the KMT versus the DPP. Once again, despite its having to reorganize itself to meet the needs of democratization, the KMT is still a party which has learned to adapt itself to survive across the history of close to a century. The KMT party-state apparatus, of course, has not been fully dismantled, and traces of it linger. After all, did anyone expect the KMT’s supposedly “voluntarily” relinquishing power would mean that it would allow the structures and institutions that preserve its political power to simply evaporate overnight?
But on the one hand, with the set of historical transitions that led to the founding of the DPP and the KMT’s relinquishing of power, the internal structures of governance in Taiwan are as solid as the Republican or Democratic Parties. The demise of the Republican or Democratic Party is not going to happen simply because of one botched election because the overall apparatus has the processes firmly established to allow for the continued perpetuation of the party. On the other hand, we can see with the recent failure of the KMT to produce a strong presidential nominee, the KMT machine sometimes break down. This occurs when the processes of electoral nomination are not so set in place as to ensure the reproduction of the party and when party in-fighting becomes too severe, the party apparatus can suffer break down.
Yet we might point out that if the KMT were to suddenly collapse in next elections, that does not necessarily mean the DPP is necessarily founded on more solid ground either. Where close to eight years ago with the rise of the Ma administration, the DPP had been labeled as a dead dog by many. While some speak of the imminent demise of the KMT in coming elections, which is not impossible, this would just reflect an inability of the KMT to keep pace with historical shifts—and this does not mean the stability of the DPP is founded upon firmly stable grounds either. Of course, a collapse of the KMT would neither mean that the KMT, its members, and KMT power simply evaporates either. Rather, such individuals would reorganize under new auspices, although the grip of the KMT upon institutional structures of governance in Taiwan would no doubt be loosened and whatever new form the KMT managed to reorganize itself under would be significantly weakened.
Nevertheless, we might point to the existence of strong third parties which exist in Taiwan in a manner that doesn’t exist in the United States—Taiwan’s so-called “Third Force” (第三實力), consisting of the Social Democratic Party, New Power Party, and Free Taiwan Party which all emerged in the last months. To be sure, we have the Bernie Sanders types who might attempt to push themselves forward as democratic candidates in order to drive Clinton further to the Left. Likewise, in the US, we have occasionally powerful showings by individual left-wing candidates in local electoral positions, such as Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant in Seattle, who was the pioneer of the Fight for Fifteen campaign calling for a raise in minimum wage currently sweeping urban areas in the United States.
Regardless, we do not have third parties in the United States that exist on par with the third parties which exist in Taiwan. The DPP has been forced to respond to the “Third Force” and suggest that the DPP will cooperate with it. The “Third Force” was emergent from Taiwanese civil society after the Sunflower Movement and was a critical factor in the defeat of the KMT in nine-in-one elections. The DPP hopes to capitalize on this momentum. Yet what remains to be seen is whether the “Third Force” truly has momentum of its own behind it, or whether the “Third Force” has simply seized public discourse as something of an “avant-garde”, radical grouping, but has less substance behind it.
For its part, the “Third Force” will continue to operate within the spectrum of pan-Green politics, though it is more of an opaque question as to what its relation with the DPP will be, except that the “Third Force” can and will compete with the DPP in legislative elections, but not presidential elections, where it seems more likely to back Tsai. This seems to be a broad underlying consensus within the “Third Force.” If the “Third Force” has taken the position of voicing more radical positions of Taiwanese independence so that the DPP will not have to, in order to that Tsai can come to victory without explicitly voicing a Taiwanese independence position but without the position of Taiwanese independence failing to make itself heard in the next elections. However, the “Third Force” runs the risk of simply being used by the DPP in the long run if it does not retain any ability to inveigh upon the pan-Green alliance writ large. That remains to be seen.
The extent to which the “Third Force” has seized the public eye can be seen in that even the KMT has seen the need to prop up its own “Third Force”-like groupings as reflected in attempts to increase youth participation in general pan-Blue politics, and attempts to form similar groupings with an avant-garde styling. As with many things pertaining to the “Third Force”, the concrete effect of the “Third Force” has yet to demonstrate itself, and so all bets are off.
Can American and Taiwanese Electoral Politics Be Evaluated Separately?: The Need for an International Evaluation
WE MIGHT CONCLUDE with mutual consideration of the political situation in Taiwan and America how the 2016 election season in America and Taiwan are intimately linked. There has always been a deeply rooted link between the American election season and the set of foreign policy changes brought about through the coming to power of a new administration or through the renewal of the previous administration. Taiwan is, of course, no exception.
When we look at countries operating in the international sphere broadly under the umbrella of American political and military power in the Asia-Pacific, this is because of the world order which emerged in after the end of the Pacific War. After all, to return to the anecdotal story told about Khrushchev’s comments to his son, it does appear that shifts in US foreign policy do have a strong correlation to election cycle. This is true whether shifts in foreign policy are ultimately dependent upon which American political party is in power or contingent upon broader social/historical determinations of the American foreign policy apparatus writ large.
Indeed, if we are to jump back to our examination of Tsai Ing-Wen and Hillary Clinton, it is ironic for us to note that Hillary is considered a “hawk” in the realm of foreign policy relative to Tsai where her aggressiveness in foreign policy is to be considered. We speak far less ofTaiwan’s ability to set foreign policy than the capacity of the US to do so. Taiwan has little ability to dictate world affairs through policy in the broad-reaching manner of American power. If Hillary is a “hawk,” it becomes ironic that Tsai Ing-Wen is somehow also thought of as a “hawk.” Taiwan’s ability to influence the global order is usually considered as being a potential flashpoint for conflict with China—and because Tsai Ing-Wen is of the historically pro-independence, even if not concretely advancing Taiwanese independence as a political platform herself, she becomes thought as a “hawk”. She is thought of as unnecessarily disrupting the precarious equilibrium of cross-strait relations with China.
If we have pointed to the means by which Taiwanese electoral politics is founded upon unstable grounds before, this is another reason. We can look broadly at how the electoral politics of Taiwan are deeply linked to that of the US, by way of the shifts which occur in foreign policy every election cycle and how they come to disproportionately influence Taiwan. If we are to consider Clinton’s foreign policy as being overall aggressive in nature, it is interesting to note that Clinton has discussed Taiwan several times, as a valuable ally of the US in the Asia-Pacific region–whatever that means exactly. Does that mean that Taiwan is being brought into the fold of the American security umbrella in the Asia-Pacific now? And what does that bode for Taiwan in connection to American electoral politics? Historically, it was the Republican Party which was more supportive of Taiwan, as part of ideologically-rooted anti-Communism. But what of America as it now faces down rising China? Will Taiwan be brought into the fold, if the future direction of American foreign policy requires greater aggressive towards China?
We may question whether the much-talked about “Asia Pivot” is actually being followed through with in the present because of budgetary impasses in American Congress. But the broader political shifts in East Asia indicate strong anxiety about China, and attempts by governments under American influence to ideologically consolidate against China. Anti-Communist discourse is at its height in South Korea and Japan at present. For example, in Japan, we can see this with the use of the Espionage Act under Shinzo Abe to silence political critics through accusations of Communism. Or the dismantling of the United Progressive Party in South Korea under auspices of anti-Communism. More speculatively, we ponder about the military consolidation of powers in East Asia to oppose China. Legal control of the South Korean military continues to revert to American direction under wartime conditions, the dismantled United Progressive Party being a strong opponent of continued military hegemony by the US over South Korea. The recent unbridling of Japan’s military with the repeal of Article 9,and Japan’s nationalist bent under Shinzo Abe’s government marks greater aggressiveness on the part of Japan as well as a shift towards Japanese military independence, but also as part of Abe’s policy Japan also continues to maintain large American bases. We should not reductively see America as “behind” or “manipulating” such actions either, but no doubt America has an interest in seeking to consolidate against China, whether through its treaty allies in the region, the signing of the TPP among Asia-Pacific nations, or what have you. Where does Taiwan figure into this state of affairs?
What does it mean, then, for us to point to the intimate connection between Taiwanese electoral politics and American electoral politics? It may be that without consideration of American electoral politics, there will be no way to grasp as to what the future of Taiwanese politics writ large will be.