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Resolution of differences still a far-off goal in Taiwan politics

Publication Date : 18-04-2014


There have been cynical assessments that business will go on as usual in Taiwanese politics post-Sunflower Movement. The reshuffling of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leadership on Monday quickly discredited such views.

DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang and party heavyweight Frank Hsieh both announced their withdrawal from the looming chairman elections, basically leaving the position to former chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen.

While there had been rumours of Su and Hsieh's plans to take themselves out of the running due to their poor showings in internal polls even before the Sunflower Movement, that eventuality was not inevitable. Su and Tsai were seen as such hot contenders for the DPP leadership position to the point that they were dubbed “the two suns” of the DPP. Despite the fact that Tsai is more popular among young and independent voters, Su had been expecting a boost after leading the party to its expected victory in the year-end mayoral elections. “Being a winner makes a leader” has long been a core ideology of the DPP; Su would not have easily given up the opportunity for his best shot at the 2016 presidential ticket.

Su's (and subsequently Hsieh's) decision to step aside is the final recognition by the old guard of the DPP that — at least for now — their time is over; that while the Sunflower Movement is mainly against the KMT's pro-China policies, it is also targeting the entrenched two-party politics Su and his generation of politicians came to represent. Su and Hsieh realised that things have changed in Taiwanese politics after the turbulent the-week Legislature occupation.

One day following the DPP chairman election shakeup, President and KMT Chairman Ma Ying-jeou rolled out his plans for major reforms within the party. Ma vowed to work with Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jin-pyng despite his continuing legal effort to have Wang expelled from the KMT after the influence-peddling controversy last September. Party insiders also outlined personnel adjustments as a possible feature in the coming reforms.

While it is a positive sign that politicians are trying to make reforms in the wake of Taiwan's spring of discontent, the changes proposed by the two parties are still mainly focused on the old war of fending off each other and winning elections. While winning elections is important, the popular support of the illegal occupation by Sunflower protesters has shown that Taiwanese people no longer see government as the sole authority and electoral victory as the only form of mandate.

More importantly, the leaders from the two parties have to recognise the great social divides in Taiwan once again highlighted by the Sunflower Movement.

During the occupation, supporters and opponents of the movement seemed to be living in parallel universes. They often came to extreme opposite conclusions to the same events despite living on the same island at the same time. The reported waves of “unfriending” of friends having different opinions about the movement on social media websites underlined the severity of the issue. People cannot even bear the different opinions of their own friends on social media, let alone others in society. Such a toxic divisiveness will destabilise Taiwan and make the process much more difficult.

The one sentiment the supporters and opponents of the Sunflower Movement have shared is the sense of being victimised by the other. Sunflower supporters believe that society was harsh to the protesters while cutting the government a lot of slack. Sunflower opponents, on the other hand, saw the rule of law being compromised by the protesters in the strong populistic movement, who some described as “the new privileged class”.

If political leaders fail to address the need of this nation to reconcile, to lead the people to really engage in democratic discussion and resolution of differences, Taiwan will be populated by an increasingly divided people in a literal “lose-lose” situation: people from all factions will always feel victimised, and everyone will blame everyone else for Taiwan's problems instead of trying to work with each other to solve them.

The political leaders are right in sensing the demand for changes in Taiwan, but they should not respond to them merely with personnel shuffles and new campaign strategies. The next generation of Taiwanese leaders should try to create an environment where the people can respect differences, learn from each other and solve problems through consensus-building, not political games and infighting.


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