Editorial: Taiwan’s choice for change

by Taiwan News

 

Politicians running for election always want you to believe that the next election is historic, a unique opportunity for change, a time to make your voice heard and change the fate of your country.

In 1996, after numerous other types of elections, Taiwanese voters received the first-ever opportunity to choose their own head-of-state. The result was a vote of confidence in incumbent President Lee Teng-hui, who received more votes than his three various opponents put together, partly thanks to intimidation from China in the shape of missile tests.

On the second occasion however, voters opted for change, for the first time voting a representative of the Democratic Progressive Party into office. Chen Shui-bian narrowly defeated independent James Soong, while the candidate of the government, Vice President Lien Chan, finished a distant third. A clearer message for change was not possible.

Chen stayed in office in 2004, even if only just, and amid the ruckus of an assassination attempt which led to months of protests and demands for a vote recount.

The 2008 election was another year marked by a thorough change, with DPP candidate Frank Hsieh failing to offset the negative verdict of the Taiwanese voters on Chen’s second term. The party which won the previous two presidential elections but never won a majority at the Legislative Yuan was made to pay the price of eight years in the government, while the KMT, which in 2000 was the major loser, staged an unexpected comeback.

Eight years further, the roles have been reversed again. The KMT, which campaigned in 2008 as the only party which could bring economic prosperity and which was smart enough to run the economy, has now seen that reputation fall in tatters.
The DPP, which was given up for dead by some back in 2008 and which still lost in 2012, is back as the nearly unavoidable party of government for the next four years.

The evolution over the past 20 years shows that it can always be too early to give up on a political party. Sharp changes in 2000, 2008 and now gave rise to rumors about the impending demise of the ruling party, but eight years after 2000 and 2008, those so-called moribund parties were back in business and in power.

The changes show up the dangers of wishful thinking. Just because a party will lose an election does not mean it will disappear forever or fail to come back. Predicting now that the loser of the next election will remain in opposition for 20 years might be right, but it still sounds too risky, since the past has shown that just several years after a defeat, a party might get its act together and return to power.

Whatever the people of Taiwan do at the polling station Saturday, the focus of their choice will be on the next four years, the period leading up to the next decade.

While the voters’ thirst for change is obvious during this election campaign, the term ‘change’ is relative. There will be change in any case because President Ma Ying-jeou is not allowed to run for a third consecutive term, and Vice President Wu Den-yih is not on the ticket either.

So even in the remote event that the KMT would win the presidential election, there would still be a certain level of change with a different president and vice president.

The question is of course whether the people of Taiwan would be satisfied with that limited kind of change, given that KMT presidential candidate Eric Liluan Chu has been described by his critics as “Ma Ying-jeou 2.0.”

Change in itself is value-neutral, since it amounts to being different from what went on before, but it does not mean better or worse. It is up to the candidates to persuade the voters that voting for them will make Taiwan a better place to live over the next four years leading up to 2020.

More important than change is in itself, is the quality of the change about to come. The first concern of most citizens is the economy, with the question how to revive Taiwan’s status as one of the once-proud Four Little Dragons or Four Little Tigers of the Asia Pacific. Young voters play such an important role in this election, not just because of the actions of the Sunflower Movement over the past two years, but because so many young people do not know where their next job is going to come from, and whether it will pay enough to let them afford a place to live.

Change in the relationship with China is also on the agenda, with a more rational approach wanted. Taiwan’s new government will be asked by the voters to step back from the possibly “reckless enthusiasm” of the past eight years but without going back to the “cold war” of the Chen years. The public wants continued dialogue with China, but not at the expense of national dignity or of local interests.

The way in which Taiwan is governed will also have to change, as the public has tired of being faced with faits accomplis but wants thorough and open dialogue before new government measures are announced. The “black box” has definitely gone out of fashion, so the next government will have to take care that its decision-making process remains transparent, whatever policy or issue might be involved.

January 16 will show how deep the craving for change is.

There is little doubt that change will be victorious, but there are still questions about the size of the victory. The percentage of the presidential winner might not really matter so much because there can only be one president. Even if the winning candidate has only 1 percent more than the second candidate, he or she is still the next president of Taiwan.

At the Legislative Yuan, the result might be more significant, with one out of three outcomes possible.

The KMT might hang on to remain the largest party, as it was during the Chen Administration of 2000-2008.

Another possibility is that the DPP is the largest party, but with fewer than 57 out of 113 legislative seats, in which case it will have to turn to smaller parties for support, which is not too problematic if those parties come from the same “pan-green” ideological camp.

The third possibility is that the DPP not only comes out as the largest group, but also controls more than half the seats, in which case plain sailing for the new president is likely.

Whatever the result, it is clear that on Saturday, the people of Taiwan will have voted for change. It would be wise for the new Legislative Yuan, whatever its party-political composition, to heed that wish and not stand in its way.

In the end, the most important element is that people value the democracy and the rights they have obtained after years and even decades of struggle. The Taiwanese voter only received the right to choose the president in 1996, which explains the still high level of interest in politics, be it in the newspapers or on talk shows.

Three presidential candidates, hundreds of legislative candidates and at least 18 political parties are vying for the three votes each Taiwanese voter is allowed to cast on January 16.

Taiwan is likely to vote for change, the only question that remains, is how large and thorough that demand for change is going to be.

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