Taiwan’s Elections: What Happens Next

(News and photo are provided by the Frederick S. Pardee School and Global Studies, Boston University, original news link: Taiwan’s Elections: What Happens Next )

High youth unemployment. Rising income inequality. Distrust in government institutions. Populist uprisings demanding government transparency and equal opportunity. An unpopular president whose party suffers at the polls.

This litany could easily describe some of the realities of the United States. But it also describes Taiwan, whose weekend elections signaled a sea change in the political life of the nation.

That seismic change was discussed in a two-day event at Boston University and Harvard. “Taiwan’s Election, Cross-Strait Relations, and Taiwan’s Role in East Asia” drew a capacity crowd to the Boston University castle, as guest lecturers attempted to parse the shifting political landscape of Taiwan and what it means for its relations with its nearest neighbor, China.

“Not only was this a remarkable election, what was remarkable was that there was an election,” said Joseph Fewsmith, professor at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, who announced the speakers. “In 1974, when I was in Taipei, the country was still under martial law. Armed military policemen were on every corner. It’s a tremendous development in the time since then that there have been elections and will most likely continue to be elections in Taiwan.”

The event was organized by the BU Center for the Study of Asia, Pardee School of Global Studies, and Harvard University Taiwan Studies Workshop, with support from the ROC Ministry of Education, and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Boston.

The initial event took place Monday, Dec. 1 at BU. A second event was scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 2 at Harvard.

In Taiwan, the ruling Kuomintang, or KMT, is the party of the president Ma Ying-jeou. Currently, Ma’s approval ratings hover in the range of 10 percent – 20 percent. The KMT previously held power in 15 of Taiwan’s 22 special municipalities, counties and cities.

But all that changed this weekend. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) gained control of 13 municipalities, cities and counties, as well as endorsing the new mayor of Taipei.

“This was a disastrous outcome for President Ma and the KMT,” said John Hsieh, Professor of Political Science at the University of South Carolina, who spoke at the event. “It showed the changing balance of power in Taiwan, as well as the splits between generations.”

Joining Hsieh and Fewsmith were Shelley Rigger of Davidson College, Tung Chen-Yuan of the National Chengchi University, and Andrew Yang, former Minister of Defense of the Republic of China.

Support for the DPP was most prevalent among young Taiwanese voters, who are more likely to be inclined toward future Taiwanese independence, concerned about inequality, and mistrustful of government.

“This is as hot off the presses as an election can be,” said Rigger. “It’s interesting to observe in the context of the last few years, when there has been a narrative of democratic decline in Taiwan. I think instead, Taiwan’s democracy demonstrated its robustness.”

Of further concern for voters was the at times uneasy relations between Taiwan and China. 2010’s Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, a preferential trade treaty between the two nations, has been consistently polarizing, and a follow-up agreement between China and the KMT in 2013 was the catalyst for Taiwan’s Sunflower Student Movement, which protested the agreements.

“Many people see more cost to the agreement than benefit (for Taiwan),” said Tung. “Taiwan also has far fewer international free trade agreements with other powers, compared with nations like South Korea. This should change.”

Though it’s still early days in the new Taiwan, the panelists said to expect measured changes to Taiwan’s economic and social policies.

“In the long run, the DPP will gain strength from the demographic change,” Hsieh said.