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November 18, 2014, by Editor

Elections in a time of democratic malaise

Written by J. Michael Cole.

On Nov. 29 millions of Taiwanese will once again exert their hard-earned right to choose the men and women who will represent them at the local level for the next four years in nationwide elections of unprecedented scope. Known as the nine-in-one elections, this democratic exercise involves mayors, chiefs, councilors, commissioners, lizhang and other local titles for a total of 11,130 seats. Though there is much to celebrate in holding such elections, several incidents that have occurred during the campaign period serve as a reminder that Taiwan’s young democracy isn’t in very good shape.

While mudslinging is not unusual in Taiwan’s ebullient democracy (or in any democracy, for that matter, including more “mature” ones), the practice of character assassination, insinuation, and trial by media has reached levels hitherto unseen in the island-nation, casting a pall on the ideals that, on paper at least, are the pride of its 23 million people, “blue” or “green.”

Arguably, one of the principal reasons why negative campaigning has been so prominent in the elections is that many of the candidates simply didn’t have cogent platforms to start with. In fact, with the exception of a few municipalities, the campaigns have been overwhelmingly lacking in substance and imagination, with candidates banking on the traditionally secure votes along party lines (“greens” voting DPP and “blues” voting KMT, with smaller parties accounting for a small percentage of the ballots).

In three of the six special municipalities, the election was a no contest from the beginning, which meant that the leading candidates (all incumbents) haven’t had to propose anything original to secure a win, while their much weaker opponents have limited themselves to launching attacks on the leading candidates’ character and in some instances physical appearance (e.g., DPP Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu’s weight). Most unexciting has been the race in New Taipei City, where Eric Chu of the KMT is assured of re-election against Yu Shyi-kun of the DPP, the wrong choice from the beginning in what is already a very difficult battleground for the DPP. Assured of victory, Chu therefore hasn’t been compelled to propose anything new for the nation’s largest special municipality— “Christmas village” notwithstanding. The elections in Tainan and Kaohsiung, where the DPP enjoys unbridgeable leads, have also provided little in terms of excitement (so strong has his lead been against him opponent from the KMT that incumbent Tainan Mayor William Lai has for all intents and purposes decided that campaigning was unnecessary). Only Taichung, where fatigue with incumbent mayor Jason Hu of the KMT, combined with the guilt by association that stems from Hu’s association with the unpopular President Ma Ying-jeou, has promised a close race among the special municipalities, with a possible eleventh-hour narrowing in Taoyuan.

Where things get a little more interesting (and nastier, as we shall see) is in those municipalities, cities, villages and boroughs where candidates have chosen to distance themselves from the traditional parties. Emboldened by the Sunflower Movement in the spring and disillusioned with the traditional players, smaller parties, NGOs, and individuals have decided to run in local elections. Though marginal in national politics, those representatives—many of them from civil society (e.g., LGBT rights, Yuanli residents against wind turbines, environmental protection)—have used their participation in the elections to publicize their agendas. While narrow, the policies that such individuals have proposed have nevertheless tended to be more practical than the usual platitudes offered by seasoned politicians, bringing much needed fresh air into the system.

Where the impact of the Sunflower Movement has been most felt is in Taipei, where the leading candidate, Ko Wen-je, has defied the odds by taking a strong lead against Sean Lien of the KMT. Having no political experience and socially awkward, Ko has run as an independent and succeeded in displacing a would-be DPP contender for the capital. Though Ko’s candidacy and tacit blessing from DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen has greatly displeased DPP stalwarts such as former vice president Annette Lu and other “deep greens,” Ko has nonetheless become a formidable political force with much appeal among young people who, as the 24-day Sunflower occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March and April made clear, no longer trust the traditional political parties. Cannily, Ko has steered clear of color politics by adopting a centrist line and emphasizing values that have substantial traction among young voters as well as the all-important “swing voters.”

Wrong footed by this unexpected opponent, the KMT has panicked. It hasn’t helped that Sean Lien, son of former KMT chairman Lien Chan, has run a lazy and gaffe-prone campaign replete with outlandish policy proposals (e.g., exiling stray animals to southern cities, opening a nighttime zoo à la Singapore) and, above all, a systematic campaign of personal attacks against Ko, his integrity as a medical practitioner (mistreatment of employees, organ harvesting, corruption, not deserving of gratitude for operation on Sean Lien after he was shot), and his spouse (ugly), all orchestrated by Lien’s brazen (and highly controversial) campaign director, KMT legislator Alex Tsai. To add to Ko’s headaches, the state apparatus has by pure coincidence decided to investigate allegations of corruption over his account at NTU Hospital, and his campaign office has been bugged (perpetrators yet unknown but two devices were found).

As Ko’s prospects continue to improve, the Lien camp has begun to panic, with Lien Sr. and his spouse in the past week spewing vitriol at Ko and in the process succeeding in insulting many a Taiwanese (references to them as “brainwashed” Japanese subjects) as well as youth (Sunflowers responsible for “social chaos,” young and “friendless” people improperly shaped because of the education they received under former president Chen Shui-bian). This having failed, the Liens then played victims by claiming that Lien Jr. had been at the receiving end of the “worst smear campaign in the history of the nation,” a rather dubious claim given the KMT camp’s sustained assault against Ko.

Ko, who on some occasions couldn’t refrain from putting his foot in his mouth (though he seems to have learned), has nevertheless succeeded in retaining the moral high ground. More than his otherwise unexceptional platform, it is Ko’s ability to weather the onslaught of accusations and attacks on his integrity that has allowed him to maintain a lead against Lien. His commonsense deflections of the many attacks by his opponent seem to have left the KMT, which was used to—and in fact rather proficient at—fighting the DPP symmetrically, without any ammunition. And without an actual campaign platform, Lien is left empty-handed, embittered by the notion that what had seemed rightfully his, and what could have further bolstered the Lien family’s political legacy, might be taken away by a political novice, someone who, in his own words, has nothing to lose. (The scandal surrounding Lien’s spouse’s Tsai Yi-shan’s Canadian citizenship was much ado about nothing, though Lien’s convoluted response to the matter initially made matters worse; much more worrying are the family’s involvement in the real estate sector, which could create conflicts of interest should Lien Jr. be elected mayor, as well as suspected ties to Chinese “princelings.” Interestingly, neither issue has generated much debate in the campaign.)

How the Lien camp will react next is anyone’s guess, though the sense of desperation that has begun to plague their efforts leaves open the possibility that more nastiness might be in store between now and Nov. 29. (Already, some people close to Ko have advised him to pay more attention to his personal safety.)

Also troubling in the electoral campaign has been instances in which candidates—interestingly all of them KMT—made promises to voters that amount to “policy bribery.” In one instance (Tainan), candidate Huang Hsiu-shuang told her would-be constituents that if she were elected, elderly residents of Tainan (aged 65 and above) would be exempt from having to pay National Health Insurance premiums. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize that Huang was “bribing” voters with money that would either come from state coffers or the city’s budgets. In a similar example, Sean Lien has openly associated himself with a vow by President Ma to increase benefits to veterans, with reports that his campaign office was consulted on the matter (Lien has since distanced himself from the matter, saying the policy wasn’t his but rather Ma’s). Once again, public funds would be used to finance a promise—in this case by association—that was made with the intent of winning votes with a specific segment of society. While such practices do not, in the legal sense of the term, constitute bribery (e.g., no red envelopes filled with cash are changing hands), they are nevertheless highly unethical and oftentimes blur the lines between the party and the state, a situation in which the KMT has very much the advantage.

Though flawed and in many ways immature, Taiwan’s democracy is a blessing to its people who know all to well what it is like to live under authoritarianism. While democracy—or in its narrowest sense, the holding of regular elections—is by no means a perfect remedy to the contentiousness of politics, it is nevertheless the least bad tool we have to do so. And it is inherently superior to other mechanisms which far too often allow a small circle of individuals to dictate the destiny of millions of others without checks and balances. However, democracy’s inherent advantages do not signify that any democracy is superior to other systems; in fact, dysfunctional democracies can in some instances be worse than autocracies. As such, for democracy’s inherent value to be actualized, the system must function properly, and for this to happen, politicians and the public must harness its powers responsibly and in the spirit of honest resolution.

Sadly for Taiwan, a good number of politicians—including some who are running in the present elections—seem to have lost sight of that responsibility, and instead engage in scorched-earth politics that, while beneficial to their interests and careers, are often detrimental to society. The crass politics, slander campaigns, fabrications, name-calling and sheer absence of actual policy proposal that have marked much of the nine-in-one elections is an affront to those who generations ago fought so that their descendants would have a chance to choose their destiny. Moreover, the cynicism that inevitably accompanies such campaigns tarnishes the value of democracy in the eyes of the polity at a time when Taiwan’s democracy—along with that of many other countries worldwide—is under assault, threatened by the allure of “soft authoritarian” regimes such as that in Singapore, or the “Beijing consensus” of developmental authoritarianism. Instead of making a travesty of Taiwan’s democracy, Taiwanese politicians should be doing their utmost to bolster its value in the eyes of the public. And to do so, they have to use it responsibly and in the spirit for which it was intended.

There is hope. The Lien camp seems to have gone too far, and the public—chief among them the undecided voters—may have been turned off by such behavior and could very well teach them a lesson by denying them what the Liens believe is rightfully theirs (this would be the first time ever that the KMT lost control of Taipei in a two-way race). Furthermore, the new generation of politicians, members of civil society who have jumped over the fence to enter politics, as well as political novices like Ko Wen-je, are the reason why Taiwan’s democracy can be rejuvenated. No matter how often President Ma denies it, and regardless of the cynics in both camps who look down on civil society, this process accelerated under the Sunflower Movement and will have repercussions for years to come. Ko would not have the appeal he has today were it not for the unprecedented developments in Taiwan in the spring and the mounting public disillusionment with politicians who seem to have forgotten the reasons why they entered politics in the first place. In fact, a Ko campaign probably wouldn’t have been viable in a different context.

J. Michael Cole is a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei, and editor in chief of www.thinking-taiwan.com. 

Posted in Taiwan local elections