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The Demon Inhabiting Taiwan's Presidential Politics:
Revealed by the Sunflower Student Movement

Masahiro Wakabayashi
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

The impact of the Sunflower Student Movement

On March 17 this year, at Taiwan's Legislative Yuan (equivalent to Japan's National Diet) in Taipei, the ruling Kuomintang party (KMT) tried to railroad the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), signed in June 2013, by closing the discussion in the Internal Administration Committee and sending the agreement to the plenary session. The next evening, in opposition to the KMT's action, a crowd of students broke into the Legislative Yuan and occupied the legislative floor. Contrary to general expectations, the movement rapidly gained support. Immediately after the occupation began a sit-in demonstration of support filled the roads around the Legislative Yuan, and the preparation for communications and supplies both inside and outside of the legislative floor as well as for the transmission of the claims throughout Taiwan and overseas have been made literally in a moment, making a unified groundswell of protest. A few days later the movement became to be popularly called as “Sunflower Student Movement," and spread widely to the extent that on March 30, in front of the Presidential Office Building, a protest rally was held by a vast crowd of 110,000 according to police reports, or 500,000 according to the organizers.

The repercussions in the global community were not insignificant, and interviews with the movement leaders were even reported on Middle Eastern television channel Al Jazeera. Since the KMT's comeback in 2008 with the election of its nominee Ma Ying-jeou to President and his reelection in 2012, the international community has watched the rapid evolution of relations between China and Taiwan, from normalization to strengthening of economic relations, and from economic relations to political relations. This has included direct flights to and from China and a flood of Chinese tourists, a visit from the leader of the Chinese body in charge of Taiwanese relations, the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China, frequent exchange activities between the KMT and Chinese Communist Party, and this year's first ever meeting between cabinet ministers of the two countries. It is difficult to surmise what future effect the Sunflower Student Movement will have on the bigger picture, but the international community has learned again that relations between China and Taiwan could stall or even go backwards by the backlash from within Taiwan.

The Sunflower Student Movement forced a concession on April 6 from the Legislature's President (equivalent to the Speaker of the Japanese Diet), a member of the KMT, that there would be no call for a review of the CSSTA until legislation monitoring cross-strait agreements has been enacted, and on the following evening, April 7, claimed a de facto victory and stated that it would end its occupation of the Legislative Yuan in the evening of April 10. How did the Sunflower Student Movement spread and continue until such a result had been achieved?

There has been widespread concern that Taiwanese society has been pervaded by a sort of “China factor" since beginning to edge closer to its giant neighbor after the formation of Ma Ying-jeou's administration in 2008, and if this continues then Taiwan will soon be swallowed up by its neighbor. One often argued understanding is that the Movement provided a political focus for this sentiment.

But when we look inside the country's politics since democratization, we cannot ignore the backdrop of problems in the presidential politics of post-democratization Taiwan.

The mechanisms within Taiwanese presidential politics

In an emerging democracy, the election of a national leader is democratic but after the election there is a tendency for corruption in or around the upper echelons of political power and dictatorship to occur due to insufficiently prepared mechanisms of executing presidential power. This holds true in Taiwan, too, as seen in the corruption scandals that emerged during the second term of the Chen Shui-bian administration. There are also some other problems in Taiwan's presidential politics, however, stemming from the specific context of the country's politics.

Taiwan's largest opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), stands on a platform of Taiwanese independence. Although the DPP's leaders have stopped advocating this directly in recent years, the debate about abolishing the party's Taiwanese independence program has fizzled out at each juncture. Also, its leaders have never indicated that they accept the Communist Party of China's principle of “One China." In contrast, the ruling KMT party's name literally means the Chinese Nationalist Party, and the stance of its chairman Ma Ying-jeou is not to rule out ultimate unification and, while not actually promoting the “One China" principle, not to rule it out, either. So if we look at the axis of opposing ideologies of Taiwan's political party system, a sort of tension exists between Taiwanese nationalism and Chinese nationalism, and the political parties and politicians are required, at least potentially, to adopt some sort of position around this axis.

Incidentally, public opinion polls conducted since the early 1990s show a clear increase in the proportion of people who, when asked about how they view their own identity, answer “Taiwanese." But when asked to indicate whether their preferred future national status is “Taiwanese independence," “unification with China," or “the status quo," a majority consistently selects “the status quo." Especially under the Ma Ying-jeou administration, there has been in increase in the proportion of people selecting “Taiwanese" and “status quo." Even when a politician is elected president and then continues to govern stably, he must maintain a delicate balance in line with this public opinion. Of course China tries to prevent him from doing so.

Since 1996, Taiwanese presidents have been chosen directly by the electorate. The term of office is four years after which the president may be reelected, although a third reelection is not allowed. Most politicians, whether Legislative Yuan members (equivalent to Japan's National Diet members), regional governors, or local assembly members, act more on practical issues than ideology, and the electorate does not only focus on the ideological leanings of candidates when casting their votes. But when it comes to a presidential election in which the country's leader is selected, it is a different story.

As mentioned above, the distribution of opinions among the electorate on the unification-independence issue is clearly inversely U-shaped with the majority of opinions in the middle. Expressing the “Taiwanese independence" side of the ideological axis as “left" and the “anti-independence/pro-unification" side as “right," the DPP and KMT candidates in presidential election campaigns consolidate their respective support to the left or right of the central point while also trying to extend their own “wing" in the other direction to maximize their votes. A striking example of this is when the DPP, led by Chen Shui-bian at the 2000 election, shelved its Taiwanese independence platform by adopting a written resolution at its party conference, stating that, “Taiwan is already an independent, sovereign nation named the Republic of China." Another example is the use of rhetoric by the KMT's 2008 election candidate Ma Ying-jeou, when made statements such as, “I will devote my entire life to Taiwan" by way of compromising on Taiwanese consciousness.

Once a president takes office, however, he starts to stray somewhat from his election stance. The original political beliefs of the president are either to the left or the right of the center of the ideological axis, as are those of the members of the party and scholars who join the administration after an election. Also, the supporters who enthusiastically canvas during elections and, when necessary, cheer their candidates at street rallies normally have a relatively similar ideological position in terms of left or right. The distribution of these enthusiastic supporters around the ideological axis is M-shaped. That is, from the budget formulation in the second year after the election, “greenish policies" (leaning toward the DPP) or “bluish policies" (leaning toward the KMT) infiltrate the administration in turn, automatically incurring the displeasure of opposing supporters.

The tendency for the post-election M-shaped stance to overcome the inversely U-shaped stance at election time is more distinct in the second term of a reelected president. It is normal for public support ratings to wane during a president's second term, but as Taiwan's system does not allow a third reelection, the president's mind is focused less on current approval ratings and more on how he will be remembered after stepping down. This tendency gets stronger as the administration finds it more difficult to keep afloat through public policy performance, causing it to shift even further away from its election-time balanced stance. For example, Chen Shui-bian ran into difficulties when his policy toward China failed and the corruption around him came to light and so implemented measures to appeal to those “deep green" supporters who were further to the left, but this tied the hands of the DPP's next candidate Frank Hsieh when he stood against KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou. As for Ma Ying-jeou, since becoming president he has made little headway in improving Taiwan's domestic economic situation in spite of progress made in relations with China, and his approval ratings remain stagnant despite international praise for his China policy. Since his second term began, President Ma has talked about his “historical mission." Following accomplishing the relaxation of tension from the economic aspects, he has a sense of mission to hold talks with President Xi Jinping and pave the way for cross-strait peace, which is why he needs to get the CSSTA ratified in the Legislative Yuan by all possible means. There seems to be widespread concern that the president's impatience born from this sense of mission lies behind the KMT's recent railroading of the CSSTA.

The Demon Inhabiting Taiwanese Presidential Politics

The presidential politics of Taiwan are, if you will forgive the somewhat exaggerated expression, inhabited by this “demon." At the risk of speaking in riddles, the president of Taiwan needs to portray the right balance of both Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou in order not to evoke the demon. This requires prestige within the ruling party that control the party not to suddenly or significantly upset stabilizing balance of unification-independence, the political sensitivity to be able to read the pulse of the nation, and most of all the political communication skills to get the administration's agenda through to people. Without accomplishing these, the task of striking the right balance between Chen and Ma Ying-jeou will be almost impossible. The demon evoked by Chen Shui-bian caused the DPP not only to fall from power, but also to make the democratic institution for whose establishment it made contributions less responsive to the will of the people. And the demon lurking within Ma Ying-jeou's second term may have accelerated this trend. The president's handling of his second administration and the fact that so many people felt his government had not properly addressed them about the CSSTA led to the “illegal act" of occupying the Legislative Yuan, which was a strong wake-up call to society and garnered strong support.

If the only price of evoking this demon was a changeover of administration, it might not be entirely bad for the Taiwanese democratic system. But within the country's harsh climate of international politics, a vicious circle between a loss of faith in the democratic political system and the subsequent non-governmental political protest would weaken the isolation film effect of Taiwan's democratic political system which isolates its society from China. In addition, the antagonistic political relationship between the KMT and the DPP could become nothing more than a pretend rivalry, and the real antagonistic relationship could become an extremely skewed one of a KMT-Communist Party alliance against the Taiwanese democratic movement. Despite the temporary success of the Sunflower Student Movement, these fears can only be eliminated if the politicians who bear the burden of systemic democracy fully accept the movement's significance. As American influence declines and authoritarian China expands, if the bottom falls out of Taiwan's democratic system there is an increased possibility of the bottom falling out of Asian democracy too.

(Article completed on April 8.)
Supplementary note at the night of April 10:
The students later fixed and cleaned the facilities of the legislative chamber before vacating the Legislative Yuan on April 10 at 6 p.m. as announced.

Masahiro Wakabayashi
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

The author was born in 1949. He is a professor on the Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University.
His publications include:
Determination to Write History for the Taiwanese: Writing Activities of Ye Jung-chong in His Later Years, Taiwan Historical Research, Vol.17, No.4, Institute of Taiwan History, Academia Sinica; “Relationship with Taiwan: Memories of Vases [Taiwan to no Kakawari: Kabin no Omoide]" (Yanaihara Tadao [Tadao Yanaihara], edited by Shigehiko Kamoshita, Yoichi Kibata, Nobuo Ikeda and Yoshikatsu Kawanago, University of Tokyo Press, 2011); The Politics of Taiwan: The Post-war History of the Taiwanization of the Republic of China [Taiwan no Seiji – Chukaminkoku Taiwanka no Sengoshi] (University of Tokyo Press, 2008); A Study of the History of the Anti-Japanese Movement in Taiwan Expanded Edition [Taiwan Konichiundoshi Kenkyu Zohoban] (Kenbun Shuppan, 2001); Taiwan: Democratization in a Divided Country [Taiwan: Bunretsu Kokka to Minshuka] (University of Tokyo Press, 1992).