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  • Michael Cunningham

Taiwan’s Elections are a Model for the World, but its Campaigns Lack Substance

In an exclusive commentary for Kwentuhan, Michael Cunningham details his observations of the Taiwan elections and how the campaigns are becoming a budding problem for Taiwanese democracy.


Photo credits: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP

In January, I had the opportunity to observe Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections. What I saw was a model for democratic systems everywhere. Particularly impressive were the quick, orderly process by which voters filed through polling stations and the efficient and transparent way votes were counted and a winner was announced.


Hours after the polls closed on January 13, crowds gathered outside the headquarters of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to celebrate Lai Ching-te’s election. Conspicuously absent were the widespread accusations of fraud and voter suppression that plague elections in the United States. In Taiwan, voter ID, in-person voting with paper ballots, and a high degree of transparency all but eliminate the credibility of such accusations. Indeed, everything I saw was an example of how an election should be run. Taiwanese citizens should feel proud of what they have accomplished since beginning their democratic transition in the 1980s.


However, equally significant was what I didn’t see—substantive policy debate ahead of the vote. While the international praise that Taiwan’s election garnered was well-deserved, the lack of substance in its presidential campaigns stifles the young democracy’s progress in confronting an array of socioeconomic and security challenges.


This shortcoming is usually not apparent to those looking on from the outside. Most western commentators view Taiwan’s elections primarily as a referendum on the incumbent party’s China policy. This is not a satisfactory assessment, though, given that the three political parties that fielded candidates in this election now have China policies that are largely similar in substance. The candidates did viciously accuse each other of being too friendly or too confrontational toward Beijing, but none dared expound on his own policy, beyond using broad terms like “deterrence,” “preservation of sovereignty,” and “de-escalation through dialogue”—concepts they all agreed with.


Some analysts more attuned to the concerns of ordinary Taiwanese citizens argue that domestic socio-economic issues, rather than China policy, are the real drivers of electoral outcomes. Indeed, polls prior to this election showed that nearly twice as many voters listed economic growth as their top concern compared to those who listed China. But the winner, Lai, didn’t make these issues a central focus of his campaign. Neither did his main opponent. In fact, the candidate who spoke the most about these issues—Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP)—came in dead last.


To be sure, this wasn’t a normal election, due to the presence of a third-party candidate who split the opposition vote. The fact that Lai only won 40 percent of the vote, compared to the 57 percent his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen got in 2020, likely reflects the same widespread public dissatisfaction with the DPP’s handling of the economy that always plagues incumbent parties in Taiwan, as well as concerns over the island’s tense relations with China. But no one candidate managed to capitalize on this discontent, resulting in a scattering of votes between the three of them.


Furthermore, Ko’s last-place finish partly reflected his small party’s lack of the island-wide infrastructure and political backing enjoyed by his opponents from the two more established parties. The loyalty and enthusiasm of his supporters seemed to reveal a hunger for a politician who isn’t afraid to talk about the key economic issues plaguing Taiwan’s society. But even Ko stopped short of speaking openly about detailed policy plans. In fact, his public statements, while spot-on as far as identifying voters’ concerns goes, contained just as little policy substance than those of his opponents, Lai and the Kuomintang’s Hou Yu-ih.


It isn’t that Taiwan’s politicians don’t have policies. I’ve met each of the men who ran in January’s presidential election and found each of them to deeply understand the challenges Taiwan faces and have clear ideas for addressing them. I know many of their policy advisors, who are exceptionally bright. Behind closed doors, I’ve heard presidential candidates outline bold and innovative policy solutions. I’ve also seen their plans published in op-eds and policy whitepapers.


But they rarely mention them on the campaign trail. It’s as if they purposely conceal their policies in favor of carefully stage-managed events and vague campaign slogans. Even televised debates—ostensibly intended to help voters understand candidates’ policy positions—tend to focus on personalities, mutual allegations of untrustworthiness, and scandals involving real estate and other issues.


Indeed, if this latest election cycle showed anything it’s that Taiwan’s elections are still fought more over personality than policy. Victory goes not to the candidate with the most compelling plan for fixing the island’s problems, but the one whose image sustains the least damage from the relentless political mudslinging and appeals to the greatest number of voters.


The reasons for this puzzling phenomenon have not been sufficiently examined. The German scholar Gunter Schubertrecently shed some light on it by explaining that “succeeding in Taiwanese politics involves avoiding extensive policy discussions and refraining from positioning oneself based on specific policies. . . It’s better to be an all-encompassing figure who tells everyone what they want to hear. Adopting a clear policy stance is perilous; mastering the art of ambiguity is key.” This happens to an extent in other democratic systems but seems particularly debilitating in Taiwan.


This is most unfortunate. Taiwan faces serious challenges, some of them potentially existential. In addition to urgent concerns around the island’s defense readiness and energy security amid rising threats from China, its government needs to confront a host of socio-economic problems, including decades-long wage stagnation, sky-high housing costs, and a shrinking population. These issues should be at the forefront of every presidential debate and campaign event. But they’re not.


If voters aren’t informed about the various policy options available for addressing these issues, and if candidates aren’t even debating them, it should come as no surprise that the problems have only gotten worse under successive administrations from both main parties. Solutions to these issues often require politically challenging decisions, and the less informed the public is about what it takes to confront them, the less likely they are to acquiesce to the short-term pain the solutions cause. As things stand, presidents are being elected with no clear mandate and are basically positioned to fail from day one. This is as unfair to elected officials as it is to their constituents.


Taiwan’s democratic transition since the 1980s is deeply inspiring, but it’s also incomplete. Its elections are already examples for the world. The next step should be to develop a political culture in which substantive debate helps drive policy forward. Such a cultural overhaul will not be easy and requires persistent effort from media, academics, debate monitors, and ultimately the public. Until this happens, Taiwan is unlikely to address the problems plaguing its society and threatening its survival.


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.

 
Author

Michael Cunningham is a research fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

 

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