A conversation with Brian Hioe on Taiwanese elections

Here we publish a long-distance conversation with Brian Hioe – one of the founding editors of the Taiwanese magazine the New Bloom Magazine – on Taiwanese elections. Most of us, thinking about elections in the world as well as topical events in war zones, might ask: Is this election really important to follow? The complex reality in which Taiwanese politics has been developing in the last seven decades is a first positive bell. Furthermore, moving away from the narrow domestic sphere’s dimension, the Taiwanese President plays everyday a role in the much broader balance of power between the US and China as well as in the region. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

To fully disclose this topical event, it is critical to unhinge the environment in which Tsai Ing-wen, the contested President, is trying to seize the positive momentum and being reconfirmed in her office. From the US-China trade war to the “One China policy“, touching the threat of populism spreading among democracies and the Hong Kong protests, this conversation helps us all to re-assign centrality to the first elections of the new decade.

According to the latest and various sources, Tsai-ing Wen seems to be leading this electoral campaign. How would you comment on her presidency since 2016?

The Tsai administration has tried to keep to a moderate political path since it took power, for example, attempting to avoid excessively provoking China while also refusing to affirm the 1992 Consensus. To this extent, the Tsai administration has pushed for a progressive political agenda, legalizing gay marriage in Taiwan, apologizing to Taiwanese indigenous on behalf of the ROC government, attempting to enact transitional justice for the past crimes of the authoritarian period, and reforming the pension system in Taiwan to avoid its future bankruptcy.

At the same time, the Tsai administration has sometimes faced backlash because of its flip-flopping on issues, such as backing away from its initial support of marriage equality after resistance from conservatives, flip-flopping on unpopular changes to the Labor Standards Act several times, or angering public servants, police, and members of the military through its pension reforms. Frequent flip-flops in the hopes of keeping all involved parties happy were one of the early challenges of the Tsai administration, but facing a large mandate, it is probably true to say that the Tsai administration has accomplished much in one term.

In Taiwan, who is benefitting the most – politically – out of the trade war between the US and the People’s Republic of China? And economically?

 Taiwan has, surprisingly, benefited from the US-China trade war. Despite the economic interdependence of the Taiwanese and Chinese economies, the Taiwanese economy has not been substantially affected–some Taiwanese companies have had increases in their orders because of outflow from China and the decline in Chinese tourism seen since the Tsai administration took power has been made up for with tourists from other countries.

Taiwan has sought closer relations with the US in a time of poor relations between the US and China, but it is to be seen whether this will last. Taiwan always faces the threat of being used as a bargaining chip by the US if it seeks a trade deal with China.

Taiwan is Asian forefront in terms of civil rights, yet constantly losing ground internationally. What do you think will be the most important challenges for the next Taiwanese president in the following four years?

Cross-strait issues will continue to be a challenge for any Taiwanese president, given tensions between the US and China, as well as that China will continue coercive efforts aimed at discouraging Taiwan from seeking de jure independence. Although Taiwan’s economy has improved under the Tsai administration, low salaries that have failed to increase, contributing to domestic perceptions of a sluggish economy. This, too, is in need of address.

In the general elections in 2000, the turnout was 82.70% and a sharp decrease in participation has been registered since then, with the lowest percentage in 2016 elections with 66.58%. Who is giving up in the general elections and why? 

Some believe that the KMT failed to mobilize its base in 2016, because of a weak campaign and weak candidates. Some KMT voters may not have gone out to vote, with the view that the DPP had all but won the election given the wave of blowback against the KMT after the 2014 Sunflower Movement. Others take the view that the low turnout was because China was no longer the single most salient issue in Taiwanese politics, but that domestic politics had taken precedent, given the consistent rise in Taiwanese identity over time. I don’t necessarily have a definitive answer myself, but it is likely a combination of these factors that led to low turnout in 2016.

Is there a class’ vote pattern in Taiwan? Has Tsai-ing Wen been able to talk to both, the working class and the middle class? Who is the KMT’s target population?  Is there the risk that populism will rise in Taiwan? What would Taiwanese do to avoid the rise of populism in the country?

Tsai has historically faced issues regarding political messaging, in that Tsai is perceived as highly policy-oriented, but unable to speak to the common, everyday people. Given his frank and often politically incorrect manner of speaking, this is why Han Kuo-yu has been seen as being able to speak beyond purely middle-class demographics, unlike Tsai, and this is why Han is often seen as a populist leader.

Populist trends the world over are hard to break away from and Taiwan is no exception. However, with the rise of Han in the past year being followed by a sharp downturn in Han’s popularity in the past few months, the KMT probably only succeeded in breaking out of appealing to its traditional demographics–occupational groups such as public servants, members of the police and military, teachers, or ethnic groups as waishengren, indigenous, and Hakka–in large part by accident. As such, the tide has now reversed itself. This may have been overdetermined.

Regarding politics beyond parties, can you tell us what are the three most important Taiwanese social organizations to monitor, what are their aims and how are they pursuing them?

Many of the key organizations to monitor in Taiwan are, in fact, political parties–though they may not only be political parties. For example, the China Unification Promotion Party, a pro-China party with ties to organized crime, proves important to keep an eye. This is because of the coordination of the party with the Chinese government to advance a pro-unification agenda domestically in Taiwan, including conducting physical attacks on pro-independence advocates.

Outside of political parties, the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, as one of the stalwarts of progressive activism in Taiwan, is likely worth keeping an eye on because of its involvement in many of the key progressive causes at any given moment. The environmental group, the Green Citizen Action Alliance (GCAA), is also likely to play a key role in what is likely to be a heated debate regarding nuclear, wind, coal, and solar energy–the GCAA’s deputy secretary-general, Hung Sheng-han, was recruited for a high position on the DPP party list and so will very likely become a legislator after the elections, flagging the significance of energy issues in Taiwan going forward.

There have been several comparisons between the Taiwanese Sunflower movement and the Hong Kongers Umbrella movement in 2014. During the last year, Hong Kong has been witnessing a profound political change through mass protests and identity building, which are still developing despite the harsh repression from the police. How are Taiwanese perceiving and reacting to this situation?

Many in Taiwan are aware of the current situation in Hong Kong, but it is also to be noted that because many media networks in Taiwan are pro-China, it is not always the case that ongoing developments in Hong Kong are always reported on.

Individuals concerned with the threat to Taiwan’s democracy from China have also been highly aware of events in Hong Kong, organizing solidarity rallies and contributing donations. It is also the case that some exchange of protest tactics and political discourse has also occurred between Hong Kong and Taiwan. But it is not necessarily the case that all Taiwanese are paying attention to the situation in Hong Kong in sufficient numbers that this will, as some suggest, be the key factor that swings the election in Tsai’s favor.

Sources

New Bloom Magazine

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