By Tao Yi-feng
It was the birth of a political movement that continues to shake Taiwan ahead of the Jan. 16 presidential elections.
On March 18, 2014, KMT legislator Chang Ching-chung announced that the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) had passed deliberations. That night, students and social activists took over Taiwan’s legislative building, protesting that the Legislative Yuan had not examined the CSSTA as carefully as promised. The protests, called the “Sunflower Movement,” mobilized 500,000 protesters and continued for over 20 days.
The Sunflower Movement was a watershed moment for Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou’s 8-year tenure in office. Widespread dissatisfaction over issues such as agricultural land development, severance pay, urban renewal, military human rights, and nuclear waste storage boiled over explosively to help the movement. Afterwards, society’s expectations for a “new generation” drew many fresh faces to politics.
Last year’s local elections showed that the “economic stability card” of big capital no longer worked and that average citizens could triumph like “David against Goliath.” This year, new parties like the Social Democratic Party and New Power Party have sprung from the Sunflower Movement to enter the 2016 legislative race. The DPP has also brought in a new generation while the KMT faces the shadow of decline.
Class and generational issues behind anti-China sentiment
At first glance, the Sunflower Movement may have seemed like an “anti-China” movement, but it is part of a larger post-democratization trend. Many marginalized young students have joined in protests, highlighting the class and generational elements of the movement.
Globalization over the past 20 years has led many Taiwanese industries to move to China. Many Taiwanese merchants have grown rich by taking advantage of cheap Chinese labor, yet the government has not made necessary structural adjustments. Without more incentives, companies are reluctant to invest in innovation or entrepreneurship.
As merchants get rich, Taiwan’s new generation of income earners are facing a decline in real wages and worsening job prospects. Income disparity is increasing, with the Gini coefficient increasing from 0.3 in 1990 to 0.34 in 2010. The income difference between the richest 20% and the remaining 80% has increased from 5.18 to 7.67 times greater.
‘Old politics’ of KMT and DPP cannot solve ‘new problems’
Taiwan’s post-war economic development was based on small and medium sized enterprises, which later provided key social support for democratization. The political opposition at the time, which later became the DPP, was not dramatically different from the KMT in terms of its support for neoliberal policies.
Due to the rise of China, Taiwanese politics has recently become centered around identity politics. As the KMT and DPP alternated time in power, Taiwanese began to realize that the independence/reunification question would not be resolved anytime soon, and thus became bored with the “old” identity politics.
Young people gradually grew apathetic as they realized that neither the KMT nor DPP would address the worsening economic environment. Since existing parties are reticent to increase social welfare spending or improve working conditions for fear of offending monied interests, long-term NGOs are forming their own political parties.
The ‘three big mountains’ blocking the new generation in politics
The entry of social activists into politics can bring new blood to the legislature, but this idealistic generation encounters barriers as soon as they enter the election process.
Election culture is the first barrier. When Taiwan held local elections under authoritarian rule, politicians avoided sensitive issues and instead focused on interacting with the local electorate. This has influenced campaigning styles even after democratization. While this style can be seen as warmer and fairer, it privileges incumbents who have more resources and local contacts.
Second is funding. Taiwan has very loose campaign finance regulations compared to advanced European democracies, or even South Korea. Furthermore, every party must pay a 200,000 NTD deposit to even participate in legislative elections.
Third is the system. Taiwan currently only has 113 legislative seats, divided between district-based and proportional representation seats. The low number of total seats creates large districts which favor incumbents. Moreover, there are only 34 proportionally allocated seats, so the number of seats that new parties can win is limited even if they pass the 5% threshold.
Election culture, funding, and system issues are “three big mountains” blocking the rise of new parties, giving social trends like the Sunflower Movement little outlet in the political arena. If the 2016 elections do not allow these emerging parties to join the legislature and existing political parties do not respond to society’s calls for fairness and openness, then social movements will persist while the over-representation of monied interests continue to hurt the legitimacy of representative democracy.
Tao Yi-feng is associate professor of political science at National Taiwan University. Her primary research interests include economic globalization, political development and democratization, East Asian political economic development, and Chinese political economy.
This article was first published in Chinese on Dec. 15, 2015 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.
Translated for Asia Times by Mengxi Seeley