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No winds of change

Having just come back from Taiwan after a busy week there, I cannot help but express a feeling that the prospects for the DPP in the upcoming presidential elections are low. It’s a feeling partly nurtured by my experience back in 2008 when I closely observed the election campaign and joined the EU delegation visiting Taiwan. This was a sad time for the then ruling party. My friends in the DPP were depressed and had long accepted defeat. Outgoing president Chen Shui-bian was a disastrous liability for the DPP and its candidate Hsieh Chang-ting who fought a losing battle. DPP rallies were as hot and loud as ever, but the median voter stood by unimpressed. Talking to a number of leading DPP figures at the time was odd as they anticipated the result – and some of them were guessing quite correctly how big the gap was going to be between the two contenders. These were the winds of change, and whatever the DPP did to denounce the KMT’s obvious objective to jumpstart a new unification policy after retaking power, most Taiwanese didn’t want to listen.

Four years later, the DPP has regained strength. The new leader, Tsai Ing-wen, has proven to be a blessing for the party, uniting it by striking a deal with the old leadership and dimming down party ideology to pave the way for a proper response to the KMT’s integration course. From the beginning, the opposition was doomed to react and could hardly influence the government’s agenda. There was much to criticize when it came to speed and context of cross-Strait negotiations pushed forward by Ma, but Tsai Ing-wen had to accept that full blown opposition to the KMT’s proactive China policy would be political suicide in the long run; hence the focus on technical details and parliamentary oversight. That is certainly important, but it never could shake the government’s course.

The DPP’s 10 year policy platform, promulgated in late August, was hotly debated by the media until its finalization. After that, it became just another document and has not impacted meaningfully on the public discourse so far. In fact, the DPP’s China policy has been spelled out in rather cryptical terms: “harmony without uniformity, seeking similarity in peace” (he er bu tong, he er qiu tong) corresponds nicely to the Chinese way of breaking complex issues down to catchy slogans, but it explains little in terms of how the DPP could do better than the KMT. My DPP friends have told me that Tsai would be willing to talk to China, that she would be more cautious, more realistic and more successful in protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty and dignity than Ma Ying-jeou. But it is far from clear for many Taiwanese, including those supporting the DPP, how Tsai will find a way around the ‘one China principle’ and the ‘1992 consensus’, both of which she rejects, and still be able to talk to the Chinese authorities if she becomes Taiwan’s next president. Tsai may still be given a chance to try, but only if the alternative – another four years of KMT-led dialogue across the Taiwan Strait, is considered worse. It seems to me that most Taiwanese do not think that way.

Tsai and her DPP thus focus on other issues related to domestic policy in order to win over the median voter: social justice, judicial and educational reform, new policies to protect labour and the environment. These issues matter, but they do not decide an election in Taiwan. Recent surveys promise a close race between the two major contenders and one may think back to 2004 when Chen Shui-bian caught up during the last weeks before the presidential election. It may have been a bullet that ensured him eventual victory, but this veils the fact that the winds of change were also weak at the time. Tight races suggest an advantage for the incumbent in Taiwan, not for the challenger.

Today, Ma Ying-jeou stands firmly enough after four years as president. For a majority of Taiwan’s voters, he is not really a corrupt leader or a maverick whose policies undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty and freedom. He made a silly mistake by advocating a peace agreement agenda for his second administration, but the damage to his campaign seems to be limited. The way for the DPP back to the presidential office is long – too long for now. The median voter is simply not alienated enough from the current government, and the DPP has too little to offer to convince them to switch camps. For a change of government in Taiwan, you need a corrupt incumbent (at least one who is successfully labeled so) or a sentiment of crisis with respect to cross-strait relations. The best prospects for change would be a combination of both, like in 2008. In present-day Taiwan, none of these factors count. Since there are no winds of change, I expect four more years of KMT rule – until I am proven wrong?

Gunter Schubert is Professor and Chair of Greater China Studies, University of Tuebingen.

Published inInternational PoliticsTaiwan 2012


  1. Gunter, how much time did you spend on the ground outside of Taipei?

    Tsai was up even when you were there already in the prediction market — the smart money has had her winning for the last couple of months. This latest foul-up by the KMT, which has all the earmarks of a forgery, has vaulted Tsai well ahead of Ma in the prediction market, which has her as a shoo-in to win, and in the prediction of margin of victory, has her beating Ma by nine. Perhaps it is irrational exuberance, but everyone I talk to has nice things to say about her and lots of people I know tell me how so-and-so the longtime KMT voter is switching.

    I think your pessimism is unwarranted. I stun myself to say this, since I am a surly pessimist myself, but really, things are breaking in Tsai’s direction at the moment — the campaign is going well, she has made no major errors, and the KMT is running a completely inept campaign.

    Things could change, but at the moment Tsai is ahead, I would say.

    Michael Turton

  2. Steve Tsang Steve Tsang

    Gunter has provided a good and balanced analysis except that he has completely ignored the spoil factor of Soong’s candidacy. Soong will take votes from both sides but I will find it hard to believe that he will do more damage to Tsai than to Ma. The prospect of Ma doing a deal with Soong that will get Soong bow out and persuade his supporters to transfer support to Ma does not look promising at the moment.

    As far as I am concerned, the elections look good. The presidential one is still a tight race, which is good for democracy in Taiwan.

  3. Jonathan Sullivan Jonathan Sullivan

    The following comment is by Bruce Jacobs:

    “He is also incorrect re 2008. There was very little enthusiasm for the DPP in campaign rallies. I’m also not sure he is right about the alienated voter now. I’m going to Taiwan next week for a month so I’ll be able to report more then!

  4. Joseph Wang Joseph Wang

    After the disastrous Aug.8 flood a couple years ago, I think there is enough “consensus” in Taiwan about “an incompetent incumbent (at least one who is successfully labeled so)” to constitute one of the change of government condition mentioned here…

  5. Carlos Carlos

    I’m a more fervent pessimist than Michael. The sense I get is that the public may feel Ma is on the weak side, but they don’t mind him. He’ll get a lot of votes by default, especially out of fear that Tsai’s best efforts would still result in China cutting a lot of economic ties. As for Soong, remember Nader in 2000? He had 8% in the polls, but when election day came around the real number was more like 2%. (OK, so maybe he did spoil the election, but the point is that there will be a lot of strategic voting.)

    But as Echo Taiwan said in his blog, the more Ma does the worse his campaign looks. He’d probably be 10 points ahead if he weren’t campaigning at all. I haven’t lost hope yet.

  6. Normal Citizen Normal Citizen

    Maybe Gunter has spent most of his time in Taipei, where we’ve seen the most solid KMT supporting base across Taiwan. The report, however, quite contradicts what I’m seeing in Taichung city. Lots of Pan-Blue voters are either not voting or switching to Tsai/Soong instead. Even local political factions predict Tsai will win by a narrow margin in Taichung.

  7. Raymond Raymond

    The main battle ground location will clearly be the Taichung region.

    The heavily populated northern area of Taipei city and Taipei county will probably swing more pro-KMT. Taipei City will likely vote 55% for the KMT and 40% for the DPP. New Taipei City will likely vote 50% for the KMT, and 45 for the DPP.

    The south will likely vote 65% for the DPP, and 30% KMT.

    Taichung is where the focus will be at. If I had to predict, I would wager that Tsai would pull it off…..45% DPP, and 40% Ma…with Song getting 15%

  8. Hans Hans

    Gunter, I’m on the same line as Turton. You must had seen too little of what was it like outside of Taipei. At the very least, if you read Chinese, take a look at some of the pro-KMT media and their polls. The pan-Green has never been this close (<5%) to the blue camp prior to the election, and these polls have always underestimated the pan-green votes by 7% or more. This is just one of the very obvious signs of many others that are pointing to the uprising of Tsai.

  9. Michael Stainton Michael Stainton

    I think Gunther Schubert has missed the point I cannot see how he can conclude that “These issues matter, but they do not decide an election in Taiwan.” referring to internal issues, are not more important to taiwanese people than a China policy which, regardless of who is elected President, will continue along the same lines.Economy and optics matter in any other country more than foreign policy, Is Taiwan really different?

    I think that Tsai’s fuzziness on China policy is the most brilliant part of her campaign – which depends on gaining the “light blue” voters to win. In any case, it is the CCP who will decide for themselves on what they want to do, which taps they turn on and which they turn off, so anything more than “:catchy slogans” is meaningless anyway as far as any Taiwan political leader goes.

    I am also puzzled that Dr. Schubert seems not even to have noticed how the “Three little piggies” has become a mass social movement in Taiwan that certainly is have an effect of tipping the balance towards Tsai.

  10. Gunter Schubert Gunter Schubert

    Thanks for the comments. It think that Jon Sullivan’s last contribution (Is Ma toast?) is a substantial alternative reading of the situation and he may be right. Tsai could win for the reasons he has given, most notably a number of tactical mistakes on the part of Ma and a matter-of-fact campaign style of Tsai that may go down well with the median voter. Still, I remain sceptical – not because I tend to see the world from Taipei only (which I have never done), but because I think that it takes more to win an election than just to be less inept (or more apt) than your opponent in selling your message. For the time being, I hold that you have to come up with a credible approach to cross-strait relations, and I don’t see this spelled out in Tsai’s campaign. But once again: Maybe I am wrong in focusing on that issue, and I am ready to learn. Be it as it may, a tight race and election outcome means more constraints on the winner than Ma had to face over the last four years. This is certainly good for Taiwan’s democracy.

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