Observations on Rising Populism in Taiwan Politics

Observations on Rising Populism in Taiwan Politics

Observations on Rising Populism in Taiwan Politics

There are currently three dominant trends in Taiwan’s politics: 1) the increase of anti-establishment, 2) the birth of anti-reform mobilization, and 3) the rise of populist politicians inside established mainstream political parties. These trends are reflected in the political figures dominating politics in Taiwan today. These trends are not unique to Taiwan and can be observed globally.

The first trend is the growing public distrust in the establishment wings of the political leaderships. The second trend is the existence of overt anti-reforms and anti-progressive mobilization, and consequently, a growth of socially and politically conservative forces. The third new phenomenon resulting in the creation of a number of populist politicians whom are seizing the opportunity created by the first and second political trends. Indeed, these trends are widely visible in today’s European party politics. This commentary seeks to provide some observations on the sociological factors contributing to these political trends and their implications.

The current features of populism globally appear to have three central elements: 1) a right-wing nationalistic xenophobic and racist/anti-immigration conservative ideology, 2) a form of charismatic leadership with politicized mobilization of the masses, and 3) a style of rhetoric reflecting absolute principle that “the people”—especially “the common people” and not the elites—should rule all aspects of politics. Populism can be an ideological inclination, a policy preference, charismatic leadership and the followers’ loyalty to the leaders, or a style of political rhetoric of the primacy of the people in politics. [1]

In today’s Taiwan, all the above described types of populist politics are thriving due to the collective sentiments of groups of people feeling left behind by the pro-reform movements, and by perceptions of growing political support from the administration and political elites of progressive (e.g., same-sex marriage) and reformist (e.g., pension reforms) policies. The “followers” are prone to be attracted or mobilized by “easy or empty slogans” (“get rich, Taiwan safe, people rich”, or “make money diplomacy” as repeatedly announced in Han Kuo-yu’s mayoral campaign in 2018) so as to be politically co-opted by populist rhetoric.

There is also an anti-establishment and anti-elite political mindset among the populist leaders and their followers. They tend to be easily influenced by rumors and disinformation spread through traditional radio programs and social media, such as those promoting “the China dream” and PRC’s unification policies. In many respects, Taiwan’s rise of populist mobilization also explicitly contains the external “influences from China,” an illusion that connecting with China could offer an easy solution to the prevailing frustration of “the common people.”

Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu

A frequently mentioned populist politician in Taiwan is Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), who fits the majority of elements of political populism. Han’s victory in the election for the seat of Kaohsiung mayor in November 2018 was made possible thanks to his populist appeals, slogans, and mobilization. His campaign had two main strategies: the first was emphasizing many sensational issues facing Kaohsiung with catchy slogans yet without practical solutions so as to arouse general voters’ collective frustration, derision, and even hospitality. The second was that his campaign mobilization was conducted primarily by means of social media and the content created by aggressive and even hatred-driven Han-fan netizens. It was often argued by many media observers that Han’s aggressive fans on the social media platforms and on the internet were assisted and mobilized by China and that a large number of accounts distributing these hostile messages were registered in many other countries outside Taiwan. Yet, Han claimed that those hatred-driven Han-fan was a fake fan group.

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je

Next on the roster of populist political figures is Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), an unusual politician with a medical background and a past career as surgeon. His rise in the political arena in 2014 by winning the mayoral election, though with the evident support of DPP—although Ko claims to be “non-affiliated”—could be characterized as the first manifestation of populism in Taiwan. He has a unique personality and speaks without much political jargons, which appealed to the younger generation and urban new middle-class professionals. He succeeded also in his reelection in 2018 with a very small margin, which perhaps may be a sign of the populist retreat.

Unlike Han, Ko is not an aggressive political agitator. The Taipei mayor uses less politicized yet simplistic slogans to arouse his followers’ and voters’ emotions. In other words, like Han, Ko is a populist politician, both are seemingly without an overt ideological position, but with a similar populist rhetoric. Likewise, Ko has also been successful in internet mobilization through social media. He also has a large number of aggressive supporters with a tendency to attack any critical comments on Ko over the social media. Like Han, Ko is also not critical of China’s threat; he would often repeat in public what China used for unification propaganda such as “close affection like a family across the strait” to please China’s authorities. For a period of time, he was even considered by China to be an acceptable contact in Taiwan. For example, China’s official TV even ran a special feature story about him before the 2014 mayor election. For that, he was criticized by the strong pro-independence supporters within DPP and the pan-green camp.

Similarly, both Han and Ko share political propensity to deemphasize the significance of rising Taiwanese national identity and pro-Taiwan sentiments. It is understandable for KMT’s Han to disregard the new Taiwanese national identity and to support the so-called “92 Consensus,” thus favoring unification with China for ideological reasons. As for Ko’s somewhat pro-China stand, in my view, he is motivated by his political calculation to take intentionally ambivalent and even opportunist stand in cross-Strait politics.

Business Tycoon Terry Gou

The third populist political figure is Terry Gou (郭台銘), a tycoon who has made a big fortune in China. During the KMT presidential primary, Gou styled himself as a people-oriented political figure. At times, he speaks like a populist, making simplistic campaign slogans about Taiwan’s economic vision to appeal to the so-called “economic voters.” Gou claimed that he can speak and meet directly with both China’s Xi and America’s Trump, and thus he could solve Taiwan’s political dilemma. As a rather successful businessman, he often brands himself as “Trump” of Taiwan. Yet, his failure to clinch the party’s nomination may demonstrate a lack of his ability to engage in populist mobilization of his followers. He has tried to use the populist rhetoric and often expresses his right-wing and sometimes pro-China conservative and pacifist ideology to attract the attention from the pan-blue camp and a-political economic voters.

Factors Contributing to the Populist Swing

Without big party assets and strong central party bureaucracy to dictate the intra-party electoral process and politics from the top down within the KMT, Han and Gou appear to have seized the opportunity to challenge the weakening KMT power center from the bottom up and even the peripheries. Han’s capacity for populist mobilization has attracted anti-pension reform groups, middle-aged and retired Mainlanders generations, self-claimed common people across different ethnic backgrounds, a few local political factions in Taichung, Yunlin, and Hualien—and even a well-endowed religious cult organization. Han’s rising populism signifies a split and even an intra-party struggle within the KMT with the social base consisting of the existing lower class and disadvantaged groups and more importantly, local factions seeking to regain political influence. Gou has tried to take an unconventional way to pressure and even coerce the KMT party with his substantial financial assets. In other words, the populist rise of Han and Gou have taken the KMT hostage, putting the KMT central headquarters in an embarrassing position. More significantly, the populist wave engendered by Han and Gou have even marginalized and pushed aside the two traditional and senior KMT presidential candidates: Eric Chu (朱立倫) and Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), as they represented the old-school KMT politicians who could not ride on the wave of populism.

The emergence of KMT’s populists also casts the Party’s ideological diatribe against DPP in a hypocritical light. For well over 30 years since the birth of non-party forces (黨外) and the establishment of DPP in 1986, the authoritarian KMT regime has long criticized the opposition DPP for being an immature populist political party exploiting the tactics of mass agitation and mobilization of lower class and discounted population. How can the KMT authority rationalize the outburst of so-called “immature populism” within KMT itself? In addition, even if KMT and the camps of Han and Gou argued that it is the self-transformed KMT that intends to deepen Taiwan’s democratic consolidation, realize economic breakthrough, and resolve cross-Strait tension and conflict, the public could question the substance of such populist slogans. However, it is improbable that KMT as a whole would turn itself into a populist party in the foreseeable future.

Indeed, the Taipei mayor could be said to be the first populist politician of Taiwan. Interestingly, he rose up with no party affiliation even though he was indirectly supported by the DPP. His electoral victory for the Taipei mayor seat in 2014 was significant back then as the DPP candidate could not win over the election in a tense KMT-DPP electoral fight. In a way, both DPP and KMT have used the populist streaks in Taiwan politics for their political gain. For the DPP in 2014 Taipei mayor election, it prevented a KMT victory by supporting a non-party affiliated populist candidate, while in 2018, KMT won the Kaohsiung mayor election to go along the populist wind. However, it is unlikely the both KMT and DPP could actually transformed themselves into populist parties as a whole.

Is William Lai a Populist?

Finally, some may wonder whether William Lai (賴清德) from the DPP could be considered as a populist leader from within the DPP. He has been in line with DPP’s political tradition of emphasizing mass mobilization of his electorate. As a member of a non-mainstream political faction within the ruling party, he might have argued and advocated for more liberal and even progressive political positions during the DPP presidential primary, such as “pardoning Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁)” and “pragmatic independence.” Yet, he does not fit any criteria mentioned in this article. He is more of a grassroots politician rather than a populist figure. Moreover, DPP is not in any position to join the populist fade of political winds at the moment.

In conclusion, the upcoming 2020 presidential and legislative elections will certainly witness the continued clash of conventional party politics and the rising populist mobilization politics which will surely add to the conflictual nature of the elections. The result of the elections and the fate of the emerging populist figures will be determined by the “rational” choice by the voter majority in this liberal democratic Taiwan.

The main point: The populist politics started in 2014 Taipei mayor election by the non-party affiliated Ko Wen-je. Han Kuo-yu in his Kaohsiung mayor election in 2018 further amplified and dramatized such populist swing within KMT. Such populist political culture even penetrated into the wider society in creating an aggressive and hostile collective political mood against political establishment and liberal tolerance. However, it is unlikely that both DPP and KMT could turn themselves into populist parties.

[1] See Paul D. Kenny, Populism in Southeast Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019); Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart, Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019); Rovira Kaltwasser, Cristóbal, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, and Pierre Ostiguy (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Populism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).