Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Taiwan's election: Change is a good thing

Taiwan's election: Change is a good thing
Published 15 Jan 2016 

Politics is a bit like sailing through rough seas without proper navigational instruments: there's a general idea as to the destination, but how to get there is very much an exercise of trial and error, triangulation, improvisation and adjustments.

The benefits of adjustments – their indispensability, in fact – are often underappreciated, as the human tendency is to favor the status-quo and predictability. However, as long-serving governments and authoritarian regimes have demonstrated over centuries, state and party institutions tend to ossify over time. As 'group think' sets in, the government becomes less and less capable of generating new ideas or implementing new practices. Rejuvenation cannot be self-generated, and stasis sets in. 

Luckily for democratic countries like Taiwan, they have the advantage of having institutionalised the cyclical mechanisms by which citizens, as non-participants in the daily routine of governance, can judge that a regime has reached the limits of its utility and that the time has come for a course correction. 

And a course correction is exactly what's in order for Taiwan after nearly eight years of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rule, just as it had become necessary after eight years of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rule from 2000-2008. As the 16 January elections approach, it is very clear that President Ma Ying-jeou's KMT has run out of steam and that it is no longer capable of generating the new ideas that will guide Taiwan toward a more prosperous future. [fold]

The KMT's uninspired – and uninspiring – presidential campaign, first marred by the selection of an unappealing candidate who had to be replaced at the eleventh hour, has descended into a circus of negative campaigning and fear mongering. Very few new policies have been proposed by its presidential candidate, Eric Chu, except a vague deepening of Taiwan's relations with China, a proposal that is out of sync with what is on the minds of ordinary Taiwanese voters. There are, moreover, precious few new faces. Waving with apparent fatigue from the stage, the political dinosaurs are still in charge, enforcing a narrative that would have been contemporaneous 30 years ago.

Try as it might to strike fear into the hearts of the Taiwanese with predictions of collapse should the DPP's Tsai Ing-wen be elected, the strategy has had little traction in this election. And the reason for that is very simple: the Taiwanese have grown tired of business as usual; they want change. 

The self-implosion of the KMT has encouraged the belief (and hope, in some circles) that the KMT is on its deathbed, that it will quickly collapse after the expected electoral disaster on Saturday. Such a scenario, however, is unlikely. Nor is it a desirable one. The KMT will continue to exist, but it will have to reinvent itself and realign its ideology with public expectations. For that to happen, it will have to undergo the trauma of clear defeat, just as happened to the DPP following the 2008 elections, after which many observers believed that the party was destined for the trash heap of history.

And so continues the cycle than began with the DPP's election in 2000, ending decades of single-party rule in Taiwan and launching a series of reforms that haven't always been given their due. Then after eight years, when the Chen Shui-bian administration was itself running out of steam, Taiwanese voters selected it out and gave the KMT a new chance to govern, and with that the opportunity to initiate much of the liberalisation that needed to occur in Taiwan's relations with the world's second-largest economy. 

The pendulum is once again swinging in the other direction, and Ms. Tsai's DPP has been the most adept at positioning itself as the party that is best equipped to harness that momentum, due largely to her ability to read the public mood and her willingness – which did not go unopposed within her own party – to empower smaller parties and civil society, groups that the KMT continues to hold in contempt. 

The greatest challenge for Ms. Tsai if and once she is elected will be to continue using the forces that have been unleashed by society as a catalyst for change in state institutions, many of which are, like the KMT, in dire need of rejuvenation. Aware that the DPP needed to modernise its image and way of doing things, Tsai took risks early on by bringing in individuals who have never been in politics, who hadn't 'paid their dues' and whose appointment was regarded with suspicion, if not outright hostility, by the more conservative elements within the DPP. Undoubtedly this paid dividends and accounts for her success in the election.

That kind of daring will have to be replicated if and once Ms. Tsai becomes president, beginning with the appointment of fresh faces (and hopefully more women) in key cabinet positions and in the mid-to-upper echelons of government. Ministries such as Foreign Affairs, Education, and National Defense should be prime targets for change and where institutional resistance to such change will likely be the fiercest. But it needs to be done. Unlike heads of state, government agencies are not exposed to the cycle of democratic retribution and therefore often withstand pressure for change, a reality that in Taiwan is exacerbated by the lingering effects of decades of party-state authoritarianism. 

Just as important as breathing new life into government institutions will be the next president's ability to reach out to and work with a loyal opposition. The zero-sum nature of Taiwanese politics, which have kept the nation divided against itself for far too long and which the Taiwanese public has had enough of, must end once and for all. By embracing 'third force' parties and reaching across the political spectrum to find allies, Tsai has already demonstrated her inclination toward such inclusiveness. Much more of this will be needed. In victory, Tsai will have to be magnanimous and amenable to bringing on board individuals who, as per the old way of doing things, may not come across as natural allies. She will also have to resist the temptation, as she has done many times already, to appoint dinosaurs from her own camp who have been waiting on the sidelines. 

None of this – the reform of state institutions and a non-zero-sum approach to politics – will be possible without the KMT's willing participation. And that will largely be contingent on whether its expected debacle on 16 January compels the leadership to clean house and to finally rid itself of the dinosaurs who, by taking the party hostage, have ensured its defeat. There is a very real chance that a new KMT, one that is much better aligned with the expectations of the Taiwanese public, will emerge from the ashes of the 2016 elections. And that will be a good thing for Taiwan.

Photo by Ashley Pon/Getty Images

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