Tea Leaf Nation

Taiwan’s Political Déjà Vu

Dysfunction is built into the island's system of governance, creating a vicious cycle that's victimized both major parties.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

By early December, local election results in Taiwan had mostly been decided. The opposition party and its allies had won 16 of the 23 counties contested, the ruling party only six. Of the total votes cast, the opposition had won 52 percent, and the ruling party only 44 percent. The sitting president’s approval rating had sunk into the teens, the lowest in his six years at the helm. That, coupled with a mass demonstration against the president earlier in the year, was generally blamed for the opposition’s overwhelming victory.

That’s not a summary of Taiwan’s recently-concluded Nov. 28 2014 local elections, which dealt a resounding blow to President Ma Ying-jeou and prompted his resignation from the Kuomintang (KMT), the party he used to lead, days later. Instead, it describes Taiwan’s 2006 local elections, when voters went to the polls to voice their popular disappointment with the then-ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The China-friendly KMT has ruled Taiwan as a one-party state since 1945, while the DPP was founded in 1986 as the first real opposition party with a pro-independence platform. Political déjà vu is gripping the island, and the problem lies more with Taiwan’s ill-designed governance system than with the particular sins of the current ruling party.

Take the 1990s, when the DPP watched as the KMT lost its legitimacy to rule through procurement scandals and the rise of gangster-controlled “black gold” politics, eventually delivering Taiwan’s presidency to the DPP in 2000 for the first time in history. Afterwards, the roles reversed. Since the DPP had not bothered to learn how govern, wrote Taiwanese author and social commenter Yang Zhao in December 2006, it lurched from one crisis to another during its term, while the KMT reveled in the DPP’s apparent self-destruction. “Taking back power,” Yang wrote, “was only a year or so away” for the KMT. He was right. In March 2008 the KMT’s Ma was elected president in a landslide.

How uncanny the similarities are to 2014, with the roles reversed once again. On Nov. 28, Taiwanese overwhelmingly voted against the ruling party — or, to be more precise, against the sitting president and the policies he represents. The lack of results from Ma’s policies, which have focused on détente and trade with China, have caused a lot of grief in Taiwan. The crises range from wage stagnation and runaway real estate prices to the now widely accepted notion that the president wields too much power without legislative oversight. Some also believe that the KMT has cozied up to big corporate interests and the Chinese Communist Party, as demonstrated by the civil unrest over a recent trade pact with the mainland in March. In addition, the recent string of scandals such as the death of a conscript during detention in July of of last year, and the discovery in October that Ting Hsin, a large Taiwan-based conglomerate with extensive China business interests, had widely sold cheap cooking oil unfit for human consumption, fueled voters’ frustrations that the KMT was failing to protect the public interest. According to Alysa Chiu, who worked on the youth campaign for the DPP’s mayoral candidate in the medium-sized city of Taoyuan, college students told her that they did not want to vote for the KMT, no matter who the candidate, because the party had “fed us poison.”

It is understandable that the Taiwanese public, faced with a variety of economic and political upheavals, would want an alternative. But they also gave the DPP a chance in 2000, after 55 years of KMT rule, and they were let down then too. This is not to say that in case the DPP does take power in the national elections in 2016 (as it is now expected to), the DPP will be consigned by historical inevitability to fail again. But to overcome that presumption, the DPP will have to find a way to break out of Taiwan’s vicious political cycle of waiting for the ruling party to crumble, and instead earn the trust of the electorate, regardless of what the competition is up to.

To do that, the DPP will have to convince the electorate that it has a blueprint for the future. Part of this blueprint should include improving the institutional design of Taiwan’s current constitutional system, which has helped the island get into the mess in which it now finds itself. Taiwan elects its president through a popular vote, and candidates campaign on the full range of domestic and foreign policy promises. The president, however, appoints a premier to carry out those promises and to be responsible to the legislature. The president and the legislature have no system of checks and balances between them – for example, the president has no veto power, nor does he or she have to report to the legislature – and this has led to deadlock between the two branches of government. Since a presidential election is a winner-take-all contest, voters expect the winner to also assume all responsibility for his or her campaign promises. But the lack of any official channel to resolve conflicts between the legislature and the executive often leaves major issues unresolved such as a Cross Straits oversight bill, or worse, resolved through backroom dealings that are not transparent or accountable to the public.

There are already many calls across Taiwan’s political spectrum to amend the system towards a more purely parliamentary structure. Under this structure, the president would relinquish all duties as head of government to the premier, the parliament would confirm the appointment of the premier and the premier would be held accountable to the parliament instead of the president. According to Taiwan’s liberal Apple Daily, former DPP legislator Lin Cho-shui and former pro-unification New Party legislator Yao Li-ming openly urged both DPP and KMT leaders to push for such reforms just days after the elections, calling the current system “unsustainable” and in dire need of renewal. The DPP will need to pick up after these calls and provide a convincing roadmap to implement these changes.

Eight years ago, Yang wrote that “a political party looking to rule must tell the people how it defines ‘good governance,’ and where and how it plans to take Taiwan during its tenure.” As ­it enters the 2016 national elections, the DPP will have to live up to this standard, or risk losing the trust that Taiwan’s voters have just placed in its hands.

Chieh-Ting Yeh is a founder and editor in chief of Ketagalan Media, a news and commentary website focusing on Taiwan.