The Fall of Tsai’s Middle Way in Taiwan
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Xiaolin Duan

The Fall of Tsai’s Middle Way in Taiwan

Mar. 05, 2018  |     |  0 comments

As the local elections — better known as nine-in-one (九合一选举) — in Taiwan are to be held in November 2018, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is changing its strategies at home and abroad to secure its seats.


Although municipal affairs and social welfare rather than the cross-Strait relationship are usually the major concerns at the local elections, the election strategies utilized by Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP yield far-reaching implications of cross-Strait relations and Taiwan politics.


A Catch-all Party?


In tense political competitions, political parties try to attract median voters to win as much popular support as possible. The DPP is a case in point considering its strategies in the 2016 elections.


In order to defeat the Kuomintang in 2016, the DPP tended to overpromise to the voters and make every social group and organization satisfied with their campaign, making their policies too inclusive to be practical. The tradeoffs between economic efficiency and equality, economic development, environmental protection and energy security, administrative efficiency and social justice are sometimes necessary in a mature society, but the DPP exploited these conflicts in order to undermine the representativeness and legality of the Kuomintang’s rule.


However, since she took office, Tsai soon found it impossible to honor these promises. The labor reform, the cuts in civil service pensions, denuclearization, energy shortages and the consequent air pollution due to dependence on thermal power, and the homosexual marriage bills all offended different social groups. Her favorability rating dropped to a new low that undermines the possibility of her being re-elected as president in 2020.


Tsai also tried to build a catch-all rather than a “winner-takes-all” administration by inviting some experienced Laolannan (老蓝男, male bureaucrats who are middle aged or above, with blurred pan-Blue political preferences) to join her administration. This was not only a policy of convenience — considering that the DPP may lack qualified candidates for ministerial positions particularly in national defense and foreign affairs — but also a strategy to build an inclusive administration with more elite support.


With a full majority in the Legislative Yuan, Tsai called for bipartisan collaboration on labor, social care, forward-looking infrastructure development, and judicial reform, while the Kuomintang wanted to exploit any mistakes made by Tsai and her administration to expand its influence among voters. This was not difficult considering Tsai’s underperformance in many issues.


As Tsai’s initial attempts were criticized by intra-party factions, and as the local elections loom, Tsai has given up trying. The cabinet shuffle was completed last September, replacing the typical bureaucrat Lin Chuan with the popular DPP politician William Lai as the premier of the Executive Yuan, and another shuffle with new ministers in order to restore public confidence in Tsai’s governing ability.

Tsai Ing-wen de facto inherited the cross-Strait policies of her predecessor, Kuomintang president Ma Ying-jeou, namely the “three noes” — no unification, no independence, and no use of force.

The cabinet shuffle and Tsai’s underperformance indicate the DPP’s failure to build a catch-all party, which may generate mixed effects. On one hand, political parties will probably propose their policies in a more rational and pragmatic way, which is good for the democratic development. If the DPP also becomes more pragmatic on cross-Strait issues, that will benefit regional peace and stability. On the other, it is also possible that the DPP will firmly assert its pro-independence and other ideological values to reinforce the pan-green camp solidarity and accelerate the process of political polarization in Taiwan.


Status Quo without the 1992 Consensus?


Another important strategy of the election is to moderate DPP’s cross-Strait policies. Instead of pursuing independence as the party charter of DPP has claimed, Tsai has vowed to respect and preserve the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.


Although Tsai refused to admit the 1992 consensus that acknowledged that Taipei and Beijing belong to the same China, with both sides having different interpretations of the definition of the “China” — famously shortened as “One China, different interpretations” — she de facto inherited the cross-Strait policies of her predecessor, Kuomintang president Ma Ying-jeou, namely the “three noes” — no unification, no independence, and no use of force.


Tsai was not the first DPP president to do so. The former President Chen Shui-bian announced his “Four Noes and One Without” (四不一没有) policy in his inauguration speech in 2000. To be more specific, Chen promised not to declare Taiwan independence, not to change the national title from “Republic of China” to “Republic of Taiwan,” not to include the doctrine of “special state-to-state relations” in the constitution, nor to promote a referendum on unification or independence.


However, the two DPP leaders’ promises to respect the status quo in the Strait did not work well. For Chen, Beijing did not trust his words. The failure was a lack of mutual trust between both sides. Taipei believed that Beijing did not respond positively to Chen’s goodwill, but Beijing thought the “Four Noes” did not show Chen’s real intentions.


Today, Tsai has made similar promises, but mainland China wants her to acknowledge the 1992 consensus without any ambiguities. The lack of mutual trust has left little space for maneuver for Tsai’s middle way. Beijing firmly believes that Tsai was trying to achieve Taiwan independence in a pragmatic and incremental way.


With local elections due in late 2018, and the presidential election in 2020, Tsai has started to exploit differences on cross-Strait issues between mainland China and Taiwan, and between the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps.


For instance, in the recent controversy caused by the unilateral expansion of civic aviation routes in the Strait by mainland China, Tsai made a high-profile criticism of Beijing and publicized Beijing’s assertiveness, expecting the international community to intervene on Taipei’s side. In doing so, Tsai publicized Beijing as the assertive bully, Taiwan as the victim of Beijing’s aggressiveness, and the DPP as the firm defender of Taiwan’s dignity and “sovereignty.”


Another case in point was the open debate between Tsai and the current Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je on the definition of “Taiwan values.” Tsai, who was apparently speaking for the loyal supporters of the DPP, criticized Ko for his recent pro-Beijing rhetoric. According to Tsai, Ko would not have the DPP’s support in the coming mayoral election if he did not reaffirm his support for the DPP’s anti-China and pro-independence clauses.


By exploiting the cross-Strait controversies in her domestic and international agendas, Tsai expects to restore the DPP’s influence among voters, but this has sent a wrong message to Beijing, making the latter further suspect Tsai’s real intentions.


My analysis indicates the fall of Tsai’s middle way in domestic politics and cross-Strait relations. Such a bold argument certainly requires further intellectual clarification. It is a test for Tsai and all other politicians in Taiwan to figure out a middle way to handle domestic issues and the cross-Strait relationship in a smart way. Without a consensus on these fundamental issues, political competition and conflict will continue to split society, constrain development in Taiwan, and destabilize the Strait.


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