Protestors show Taiwanese democracy is alive and kicking

Author: Sheryn Lee, University of Pennsylvania

On 29 September 2013, tens of thousands of people held a protest across Taiwan calling on President Ma Ying-jeou to resign amid claims he abused his government powers for political purposes. The protests began near the presidential residence, calling on Ma to shoulder the responsibility for Taiwan’s stagnating economy, controversial policies and declining popularity.

In a 15 September poll, Ma’s approval rating traced a new low of 9.2 per cent. The political crisis demonstrates the vitality of Taiwan’s democracy, making cross-Strait reconciliation on China’s terms an even lower probability.

The protests were driven by a range of issues that threaten to split the country’s ruling Kuomintang party, and prolong efforts to build closer economic ties with mainland China. First, Ma’s cabinet has been plagued by bribery and corruption charges. One of his top cabinet officials and a former Kuomintang vice-chairperson, Lin Yi-shih, was found guilty on two counts in April 2013 for taking and demanding bribes in exchange for awarding government contracts. As if that wasn’t enough, in July 2013 one of Ma’s top aides and a Taipei city councillor, Lai Su-ju, was indicted for bribery in the Taipei Twin Towers development process. For an electorate already weary from the corruption cases that plagued the previous Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, these cases epitomised the failure of Ma to live up to campaign promises.

Second, Ma is accused of using the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office Special Investigation Division (SID) as his personal tool for political persecution. The SID have charged three officials — the Legislative Yuan speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, Justice Minister, Tseng Yung-fu, and a chief investigator — with using their influence to block SID prosecutors from filing an appeal after a prominent opposition lawmaker, Ker Chien-ming, was found not guilty of embezzlement. All three accused insist that the SID prosecutors obtained their evidence through illegal wire-tapping, the very behaviour President Ma swore to abolish upon taking office.

Wang and Tseng denied charges of meddling, but Tseng has since stepped down and Wang’s party membership has been revoked. The case has further exposed the political power struggle inside the Kuomintang between President Ma and Wang, a party heavyweight who has held the speaker’s chair since 1999. The tensions date back to 2005, when both competed to lead the party, and flared up again in 2008 when they competed for the party’s presidential nomination. Some claim that Ma used wire-tapping in an attempt to remove Wang from his position of considerable political influence within the Kuomintang.

The illegal use of wire-tapping has not only angered the opposition, but also the public, who say that Ma’s administration has violated the constitution to pursue Ma’s politically motivated desire to oust Wang. The expulsion of Wang from the party will also create further obstacles for Ma’s policy objectives — in particular, his desire to seek approval for a cross-Strait service-trade agreement with China that would liberalise trade and investment in the service sector. Wang’s supporters in the legislature are delaying approval of the pact, despite the Kuomintang holding a majority in the chamber.

Finally, the wire-tapping controversy has been compounded by growing economic concerns. One of Ma’s campaign slogans was, ‘6-3-3’ — 6 per cent economic growth, per capita GDP of US$30,000, and an unemployment rate of less than 3 per cent — none of which his administration has been able to achieve. The service-trade pact has already sparked violent brawls in Taiwan’s legislature, and many argue that it will jeopardise Taiwan’s small- and medium-sized businesses. A major group involved in the protest was the National Alliance of Workers from National Factory Shutdowns. Members of the group include local workers who lost their jobs following the mass movement of assembly lines from Taiwan to mainland China in order to capitalise on cheap labour and land prices.

Other groups involved in the demonstration also protested increasing electricity rates and fuel prices, expressing dissatisfaction with the ineffectiveness of Ma’s policies. The failure to live up to promises of economic revival has only promoted concerns about Ma’s cosy relations with Beijing, and Taiwan’s increasing dependence on China. DPP legislators fear that giving into China’s hastening of economic integration with Taiwan will mean that it can use its influence to push the island into talks regarding (re)unification.

It has only been a year since Ma’s re-election, meaning it is too early to predict a DPP comeback or judge the negative impact of his China-friendly policies. However, the demonstrations are proof of Taiwan’s thriving democracy. Gone are the days of martial law, which ended in 1987. Voters will not simply acquiesce to a future that does not put Taiwanese interests first and that jeopardises fundamental rights that were only recently fought for. As a result, despite the perception of warming Taiwan–China relations, the possibility of a political settlement on (re)unification remains rather remote.

Sheryn Lee is a PhD student in Political Science at the School of Arts and Sciences, University of Pennsylvania.