Some Brief Thoughts on the Taiwanese Election

Election season in Taiwan is fun: I just received my first robocall, with one candidate accusing another of being an interloper who has mansions in California and China. I cannot vote, but it’s nice to feel included!

There are many interesting macro storylines taking place in this election: the unpopularity of the DPP, the technopopulism of Ko Wen-je and the TPP, the changing political views of young people, and, of course, whatever last-minute craziness always crops up in the run-up to an election. All of these are interesting and important; what I want to elaborate here is one possible alternative way of thinking about the election to make sense of some of the macro cleavages underlying the party competition.

While most external articles of the Taiwanese election focus on China and its outsize role as both a topic of electoral conversation and potential source of election interference, I think it is much more interesting—and much more enlightening—to frame the core issue at stake here as competing claims to democracy. The most significant difference between the parties is less in their stated attitudes toward China—even the relatively China-friendly KMT opposes unification and “one country, two systems”—but rather about how each party conceives of the core way to protect the shared value of democracy and oppose the specter of authoritarianism. Given Taiwan’s relatively recent democratization, it makes sense that the importance of protecting democracy plays a central role in Taiwanese politics; what is interesting is how each party has portrayed its relation to the protection of democracy.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is currently in power, has built its campaign around the notion of taking the “democratic road.” (The main DPP ad this cycle features the outgoing president and incoming presidential candidate driving a car down “democracy road”; it is not subtle.) The DPP’s claims to democracy rest on its opposition to China: the party and its supporters view China as the fundamental threat to Taiwanese democracy; therefore, the best way to promote democracy is to keep Taiwan as separate as possible from China. 

In its purest form, the DPP position is that any engagement with China potentially threatens Taiwanese democracy because it opens up potential channels through which China can infiltrate Taiwan, destroy Taiwan’s freedoms, and subsume Taiwan into China’s authoritarian system. If China is the largest threat, the DPP argues, then the sure path to protecting democracy is creating as much separation as possible from China: building up Taiwan’s defenses, opposing Chinese attempts at interference, and insisting on a more liberal, progressive politics domestically.

At DPP rallies and in conversations with DPP supporters, the distrust of engagement with China is palpable. Even if the KMT claims it does not favor unification, the DPP views this as a smokescreen for slowly allowing China to take over. More engagement will not reduce tensions between China and Taiwan, they argue, but rather a path toward Taiwan losing its democracy at the hands of Chinese authoritarianism. In one DPP advertisement, time unfolds in reverse, from today’s democratic society through the student-led Sunflower Movement in 2014 all the way back to the era of martial law that lasted from 1949 through the late 1980s under KMT rule. If the KMT regains power, the ad implies, democratic progress will be lost, and Taiwan will return to its authoritarian past. 

This is not the only claim to democracy at stake, however. The KMT, which has its own complicated past with both authoritarianism and democracy, argues that the DPP, not China, is the main threat to Taiwanese democracy. The KMT has adopted the position that democracy requires rotating party power; if one party dominates politics endlessly, democracy has been lost. The KMT slogan for this election is, “Democracy requires a balanced system.” Or, as another slogan states, “The rotating of the seasons is the will of nature; the rotating of the political parties is the will of the people.”

There are two criticisms underlying this, both of which I think are relevant to Taiwanese voters but are rarely discussed in international discussions. First, critics of the current DPP administration allege that the party has acted anti-democratically during its time in power. The KMT (and others) accuse the DPP of abusing its power, cracking down on dissent, and using authoritarian tactics to bully opposition. These critics point to a number of particular instances that they claim represent DPP overreach and anti-democratic action: the decision to shut down a pro-KMT (and pro-China) television station; the year-long refusal to confirm a president of National Taiwan University, which critics claim was due to the academic’s support for the KMT; and excessive consolidation of power during COVID-19, during which authority was centralized under a pandemic control center that reported directly to the president.

While I cannot comment on the complexities of all of these cases, and this may well be partisan nitpicking, I have been surprised over the last few months how many people have raised these concerns about the DPP. Even avowed DPP supporters expressed their discontent with what they felt were excessively strong-armed tactics the DPP has used to get their way. Some of this relates to internal factional struggles within the DPP, and others personal vendettas; regardless, the ubiquity of the complaints suggests that there is a significant share of Taiwanese who think the DPP has pushed the boundaries of appropriate democratic behavior.

Second, and perhaps I am imposing larger theories onto the actual situation at hand, but there is an additional argument behind the KMT’s position that the DPP is endangering democracy. The KMT emphasizes that the DPP’s strong opposition to engagement with China in nearly any form is increasing tensions and making Taiwan less safe. Insofar as the largest threat to Taiwanese democracy comes from a forcible takeover of the island by Chinese forces, the KMT’s willingness to try to ratchet down tensions and keep China relatively mollified is a way of decreasing the likelihood of an invasion and therefore protecting Taiwanese democracy. If the threat of invasion is more damaging than the threat of infiltration, one could argue, then the KMT position is plausibly more likely to protect democracy than the DPP’s more aggressive stance. 

Finally, Ko Wen-je, the technopopulist Taiwan People’s Party candidate, locates the problem with democracy in institutional sclerosis. He claims that democracy requires breaking out of the ossified two-party system: Democracy requires not only the rotation of parties but rotation past the same two parties, injecting new vitality into an otherwise inflexible system. Ko has also called for other institutional reforms, including replacing Taiwan’s presidential system into a parliamentary democracy and switching his role from president to prime minister, lowering the threshold for small parties to gain legislative seats, and increasing supervision of the executive branch.

Part of why it is hard to view the whole election only through the lens of China is that Ko’s positions on China (or on anything) are not entirely clear. On democracy, though, he has a strong institutional and procedural criticism. Ko has staked his claim that the existing two-party system has failed to adequately serve the people of Taiwan. Only through internal institutional reforms can Taiwan be more democratic and therefore preserve its democracy. The threat to democracy is not coming from across the Strait so much as in the internal design of domestic institutions — a message that has resonated with a significant number of supporters, who consistently told me that the parties were only looking out for their own interests and Taiwan’s democracy needed to find ways to speak for the people as a whole, rather than narrow party priorities.

The three claims to democracy represent distinct conceptions of what democracy means as the fundamental value of Taiwanese politics—and where the threat to democracy lies. The DPP sees the threat to democracy in engaging with China; the KMT with the DPP’s domestic structure and its unwillingness to engage with China; and the TPP in failing to overhaul the internal system.

In short, despite the common framing that the fundamental question of this election is about the level of China threat, the parties themselves are starting with the central agreed-upon value of democracy and all making claims to the most viable defender of democracy. Some of this includes China, but not all of it; and there are multiple competing claims for where the largest threat lies. While most Western observers have a natural affinity for the DPP’s position, the contestation over the meaning of democracy is worth taking seriously: it is not obvious to me that devolving the election into a question that focuses only on China as the sole source of anti-democracy is useful for understanding the unique character of Taiwanese politics, or of the complexities of the Taiwan-China relationship.