This weekend, each major party held a big event. The KMT retracted its nomination of Hung Hsiu-chu for president and replaced her with Eric Chu, while the DPP and Tsai Ing-wen opened their presidential campaign headquarters with a festive outdoor rally. I watched most of the former event on TV and Youtube, and I attended the latter event in person. I’m going to comment in this blog post about some of the contrasts between the two events, which could not have been more different. Warning: Like most comparisons of the two major parties over the past couple of years, this one isn’t going to be very flattering to the KMT.
At the most basic level, the KMT event was a hastily planned emergency event designed to try to take drastic action to prevent a rapidly approaching catastrophe. It was a closed event in which the party looked inward, trying to figure out how it would deal with a platform that was not gaining much popular support. The DPP event was scheduled long ago. It was a smoothly run rally that reeked of advance planning and attention to detail. It was outward-looking, with the public invited to enjoy the good cheer along with the party faithful.
Substantively, the Tsai campaign wanted the audience to know that it is thinking seriously about all sorts of policy questions. They introduced about three dozen scholars and experts in various policy areas who were leading teams for both the campaign and for Tsai’s think tank. This took two full sets of the program, with each consisting of a parade of experts and a speech. In between the various sets, they showed videos of Tsai’s campaign ads, and many of these were also policy-oriented. The message to the audience was clearly that, even though they didn’t have time to go into detail about each individual policy, they could easily do so if necessary. When Tsai spoke, she echoed this. She didn’t focus on any specific policy, but she stressed that her people had spent a lot of time in preparation, they had already announced several policies, and they would continue to roll out other policies over the next few weeks. Of course, white papers are a dime a dozen, but this fits in with my impression built up over the past few years of Tsai as a dead-serious policy wonk. A few months ago, the KMT tried labeling her as kongxincai, a play on the name of common leafy green vegetable with a hollow stem, implying that she has no substance undergirding her charisma. I never understood why they thought this was a promising line of attack, since substantive policy is probably one of her strongest points. They might do well to seek a more vulnerable angle.
(Aside: As I watched Tsai give a rousing speech while still conveying substantive heft, I couldn’t help but think back to her 2010 campaign for New Taipei mayor. I watched dumbfounded as she told a raucous crowd to calm down so she could lecture them on policy. After five years of nearly non-stop campaigning, she has learned an immense amount about how to work a crowd, giving them an opportunity to roar, building their excitement and commitment to the campaign while still sneaking in a bit of substantive policy. It’s hard to believe that this is the same person from five years ago.)
At the KMT event, there was a notable absence of any concrete policy discussion. Instead, when the KMT talked about ideas, they stuck to broad themes, such as maintaining the 92 Consensus and defending the ROC. They went out of their way to make it clear that they were not repudiating Hung Hsiu-chu for taking a position that was clearly outside the party’s mainstream. Speaker after speaker (including Chu) apologized to her (for the unfairness of retracting the nomination??). They are taking the position that the problem is entirely with the messenger and the presentation of the message rather than with the message itself.
The other big contrast that I want to focus on is the assumed relationship between the party and the state. Near the beginning of his remarks, Chu stated that the KMT’s future is tightly bound up with the future of Taiwan and of the ROC. In other words, an election disaster leading to the demise of the KMT could be expected to spell ruin for Taiwan and the ROC. Chu was not alone in tying the party and state together. Several previous speakers made similar remarks. The KMT is, in essence, the ROC. It is disheartening for me to hear this sort of rhetoric after more than two decades of democracy. The KMT elite seems to still believe the Leninist assumption that it is a vanguard party leading the state. They seem not to understand that in democracies, parties are a level below the state. The democratic system can remain quite healthy even as new parties emerge and old ones fade away (or crash and burn dramatically). No party is irreplaceable.
Tsai’s rhetoric was the polar opposite. She proclaimed that the KMT does not equal the ROC, and the DPP does not equal Taiwan. If the current generation fails to protect the democratic system, no one will regret it very much if the KMT and DPP are both swept into the dustbins of history. To my mind, this is a much more democratic way to think of parties. If they don’t perform well, they deserve to die. They also have no hegemonic claim to represent the entire population or state.
Tsai elaborated on this by talking about the DPP’s crushing defeat in 2008. Their only option, she said, was to rebuild the party through even more transparent and democratic means, trusting the people, trusting democracy, and trusting the institutions. When a politician talks about trusting democratic institutions, I get a little teary-eyed. Some might argue that the DPP’s actions haven’t always matched its rhetoric, but intellectually the current DPP leadership is far superior to the current KMT leadership in its understanding of the relationships between the party, the people, and the state.
Some of these differences naturally arise from the very different challenges the two parties currently face. The DPP expects to win and is preparing to govern. Thus, it looks outward. The KMT is trying not to implode, so it wants desperately to consolidate its previous support. This leads it to look inward.
The KMT did unleash one outward appeal. Defeatism be damned, Chu launched his campaign with the checks and balances appeal. What if, he asked, the KMT collapsed in the 2016 election? What if a party that has relied on mass conflict, street protests, and occupying the speaker’s podium won complete control of the executive branch, complete control of the legislature, complete control of local governments? There is no democracy without checks and balances! If that happened, would people be afraid and lose their freedom of speech or freedom to participate in politics? Would all public servants have to make decisions according to one party’s ideology? Would all teachers have to teach according to one party’s ideology? If that party completely controlled the central government, it could revise the laws and even amend the constitution at any time! We would really need to worry for the future of Taiwan’s democracy, Chu fretted.
I should note that Chu is not particularly famous for his sense of irony, and no one in the hall seemed to think he was joking.
They’re going to have to work on the delivery a bit. Maybe they will just focus on the part about democracy working better with a robust system of checks and balances and junk the “what if” scenarios. Eventually they should be able to figure out how to make this point without causing widespread snickering. If they do, it will be a powerful argument. Almost everyone, even those who want to see the KMT thoroughly rejected and discredited, wants a credible opposition force to keep the future DPP government honest and on its toes. I’m a bit surprised that Chu is pulling this appeal out so early since it is traditionally something that pops up in the last week or two. By raising it so early, Chu might be giving the DPP time to present counter-arguments (“That’s the only reason they have for you to vote for them??” “A crushing KMT defeat will be healthy for the system in the long run since it will force the KMT to fundamentally reform itself and become a healthy democratic party.”), and other parties might get in the act (“We in the PFP/MKT/SDP promise to rigorously watch over and challenge the DPP government!)
I warned you that this post wouldn’t flatter the KMT, but I feel like I should say one nice thing about the KMT’s weekend, so here goes. They managed to retract Hung Hsiu-chu’s nomination without inciting a rebellion. Good job.
No, I’m going to stop there.