Contemplating a New Era in Taiwan

On January 16th, 2016, voters across Taiwan went to the polls to elect a new President, and by the end, the Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, had emerged victorious, capturing over 56% of the vote (Eric Chu, the Kuomintang’s candidate, came in second with 31% of the vote). On that day, voters also elected a new legislature, and for the first time ever, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) also obtained a majority of seats there as well (68 out of 113).

With the election having been nearly two months ago, this may seem like an odd time to be writing about Taiwanese politics. That said, by a quirk in Taiwan’s political calendar, Tsai Ing-wen will not take over as President until May 20th (in contrast, the new legislature was sworn in on February 1st). Politically speaking, then, we appear to be in a period of unusual calm (where Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s incumbent President, has almost no mandate to act, while Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s President-elect, has no ability to do). As a period of calmness can often be a good environment for reflection, it seems like this then may be a good time to consider Taiwan and its political development.

In thinking about Taiwan, a prominent notion has been that of a Taiwan miracle. For many, the Taiwan miracle consists of two parts, an economic miracle and a political miracle. The economic aspect of Taiwan’s miracle is often understood in terms of “growth with equity.” Not only has Taiwan’s economy seen a sustained period of fast growth over multiple decades, but the economy has grown without seeing a substantial uptick in economic inequality. On the political side, Taiwan has undergone a remarkably peaceful transition from what was essentially an authoritarian, one party dictatorship to a vibrant multiparty democracy.

Over the years, there has been no shortage of those proclaiming a Taiwanese miracle in political and economic spheres (Fei, Ranis, and Kuo, 1979; Kuo, Ranis, and Fei, 1981; Gold, 1986; Copper, 1997), and on the political side, we can find something distinctive about nearly every presidential election in Taiwan since the island’s first direct, popular election in 1996.

Not only was the 1996 election the first, but Lee’s win was also the most lopsided to date (the gap between Lee and Peng Ming-min, the next largest vote getter, was over 32 percentage points). His victory was also the most broad based (he won 24 of 25 regions).

While voter turnout was good in 1996 (76% voter turnout rate), it was even better in the 2000 election (voter turnout rate of 82.7%), with the 2000 number seemingly representing a high water mark for voter turnout for Taiwanese elections. Similarly, if the 1996 election represents Taiwan’s most lopsided presidential election, the 2004 election represents Taiwan’s closest presidential election to date, with just 29,000 votes (about 0.2 percentage points) separating the winner and runner up.

In comparison, the 2008 election presents a stark contrast to the 2004 event. In 2008, not only did KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou receive more votes (7,659,014) than any other candidate before or since, he also received the highest percentage of votes (58.4%) of any candidate ever.

Relative to that, the 2012 election was a somewhat sedate affair, most notable perhaps in that it represented the worst showing by third parties in any election in which there were candidates from more than two parties running (James Soong received a mere 2.8% of all votes cast). While there have been times when third party candidates have done even worse (e.g. Li Ao and Hsu Hsin-liang in 2000), looking across all elections where voters have had a non-KMT, non-DPP choice, 2012 represents a low mark in the election performance of non-KMT, non-DPP candidates.

Finally, while it is undoubtedly true that Tsai Ing-wen did well in the most recent election – second highest percent of votes received (56.1%), second most broad based victory (18 of 22 regions) – it is also true that, coming in at 66.3%, voter turnout was the lowest to date, continuing a slide that began in 2004 (80.3% voter turnout versus a turnout of 82.7% in 2000) and has yet to reverse itself (turnout was 76.3% in 2008 and 74.4% in 2012 respectively).

Of course, not all significant events in a country’s democratic evolution are observable in election results. The founding of the DPP on September 28, 1986, and Chiang Ching-kuo’s willingness to let it persist, the rise of Lee Teng-hui as leader of country and Kuomintang (KMT) after the death of Chiang Ching-kuo –   none of these events were related to broad based elections, but they were fundamental to Taiwan’s political development.

That being said, several elections do seem to have served as markers of Taiwan’s political maturity. In particular, as the first direct election of a President, Lee Teng-hui’s victory in Taiwan’s 1996 election was a watershed moment. Similarly, in bringing an opposition candidate in as President for the first time, Chen Shui-bian’s victory in 2000 was also notable.

Of course, it has been said that all good things must come to an end. With many of the conditions that gave rise to Taiwan’s economic miracle having played themselves out and Taiwan’s economic growth having become increasingly erratic, use of the miracle narrative for understanding Taiwan’s economic circumstances today is misleading.

It is therefore tempting – from the perspective of symmetry, if nothing else – to want to call an end to Taiwan’s political miracle as well (or, if that seems too severe, then to decide that, with Taiwan’s political system having arrived, there is nothing more to observe – “Yes, it’ a democracy. Nothing to see here. Move along…”) On top of that, with the Taiwan miracle having been proclaimed so often, there seems to be little force in announcing it once again.

Nevertheless…

When the traditional ruling party of a country finds itself completely out of power and wandering in the wilderness, yet still manages to conduct itself with grace and dignity, and in so doing, allows the country to prosper – that truly is a miracle! Taiwan’s economic miracle may be over, and as a result, Taiwan may have to grope forward into an uncertain future just as most other developed economies do. Taiwan’s political miracle, however, is about to enter a new phase. There is no guarantee that all will go smoothly, but still, we can hope. The miracle is over. Long live the miracle!

 

References

Copper, John Franklin (1997) The Taiwan political miracle: essays on political development, elections, and foreign relations. Lanham: East Asia Research Institute, University Press of America.

Fei, John C. H., Gustav Ranis, and Shirley W. Y. Kuo. (1979) Growth with Equity: The Taiwan Case. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gold, Thomas B. (1986) State and Society in the Taiwan Miracle. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Kuo, Shirley W. Y., Gustav Ranis, and John C. H. Fei (1981) The Taiwan Success Story: Rapid Growth with Improved Distribution in the Republic of China, 1952-1979. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

 

Contemplating a New Era in Taiwan