Taiwan’s 2022 local elections and this emerging Taiwanese national identity – a few more thoughts: Taiwan dispatch, world history, and Taiwan Republic 台灣国 classrooms

After decades of studying elections in the US, Europe, and Asia, a few observations and thoughts.

One. Never criticize/review citizens-voters. The easiest path for the losing party is to criticize the voters-citizens, and the party that falls prey to that temptation will continue to lose. Democracy is imperfect and messy, but its beauty is that what’s right and wrong is decided by citizens – full stop, end of discussion. I am unhappy with what the voters chose for the 2022 Taiwan local elections, but it is what it is. DPP leaders must examine exit polling and other data to improve their performance in future elections. This defeat is on them, not the voters.

Two. Refrain from reviewing/criticizing “the media.” Likewise, to criticize the media landscape and reporting. Taiwan’s journalism is deeply flawed – a legacy of its China KMT authoritarian era, communist infiltration, too many outlets controlled by conglomerates, and the unwillingness of media companies to pay journalists decent wages. I am not uncritical of Taiwanese and western journalists but related to the point above, the losing party will continue to lose if they focus on journalists and not themselves.

Three. I am a supporter and admirer of President Tsai. During the democratic era, out of its three elected presidents, Lee, Chen, and Tsai, Tsai has been the best national security president. For domestic affairs and electoral politics President Tsai and her team have been far less impressive – they are no match for President Chen’s insight into the mechanics of local politics, nor President Lee’s charisma and retail electioneering. In contrast, President Tsai and her team are too Taipei-centered, too reliant on a particular style of soft Taiwan soap-opera-ish online storytelling – these may be useful towards a particular subset of urban educated younger voters, but clearly not useful for nationwide local elections.

Four. Misreading past success and failure. I am astonished that after the DPP drubbings in the 2018 local elections the national party failed to radically rethink its local electioneering strategy – and in fact, I think they misread the 2020 national, presidential election victory as a sign that the DPP already overcame the previous challenge – institutional, attitudinal, structural, towards local elections. Think of this as the DPP’s version of a common fallacy by some western journalists and academics, over and misreadings of what local elections actually mean – either in the US, or Taiwan.

Five. Elections require storytelling and a narrative strategery. For the DPP this 2022 election was story-narrative free – confused, contradictory, grab bag of things from the past. It was passive, confusing, contradictory, and reactive. I am dumbfounded, for example, that they nominated the super competent and likable health minister responsible for protecting Taiwan during this pandemic, and failed to have a clear and prepared strategy to counter the predictable pan-blue/red lies about vaccines and death rates. The focus within the DPP leadership on nominees rather than a coherent story/narrative makes me wonder if the major party factions have moved on to the 2024 nomination fight.

Six. All politics is local, with some peculiar exceptions. I was taught from my very first Political “Science” class that voters do not vote on foreign affairs – voters respond to pocketbook/kitchen table issues. There are exceptions when foreign affairs bleed into domestic tranquility (American War in Vietnam, Global War on Terror and Iraq invasion ….), or when the China KMT nominated a dangerously incompetent candidate in 2020, enough so that citizens decided this is neither the kind of neighborhood nor moment in Taiwanese history to experiment with an unusual candidate. Watching the 2022 DPP election strategy, I failed to hear a consistent series of domestic, local, policy-based narratives – pandemic success could have been rebranded as a harbinger for positive healthcare reforms, success in trade talks with the US and other democracies could have been translated into a vision for transformation local manufacturing, education, R&D, very few words on the perpetual problems of low wages, particularly for young, recent graduates, housing justice for the youth and low-income population, etc, etc. Even the China threat could have been productively built into a clear, consistent web of local, domestic, and future policy visions – and yet this did not occur.

Seven. The unique characteristics of President Tsai and her team. President Tsai’s astonishing success in national security and foreign affairs is rooted in her approach to public affairs – sober, consistent, thoughtful, professorial in its sophistication and boring-ness – all characteristics that are particularly unuseful in domestic politics, particularly local elections. The nominees from DPP are super competent – but unable to control the tempo and seize the narrative. Going back to the super competent Health Minister and nominee for Taipei Dr. Chen – was he even the right nominee? A man who has never run for local offices, without a political-campaign team of his own, to run in one of the nastiest, toughest localities in Taiwan? And if he was to be the the best nominee for the moment, why did the DPP fail to put together a political-campaign team, with the same level of narrative storytelling sophistication it organized during the 2020 election?

Eight. Speed is not our friend and the dangers of over-reading specific episodes. As brave Chinese people protest the Chinese communists all over China I cautioned students from jumping to quick, self-serving conclusions. This is my sense about the 2022 Taiwan local election as well. Is this the pendulum effect? Is this voter fatigue? Are these major factions within the DPP moving onto 2024 prematurely? Are voters seeking an outlet for their frustration with the pandemic? I have noted previously that during the democratic era, President Tsai is the first Taiwanese president who – paws crossed – has maintained relatively high approval ratings and avoided a major protest during her second term. Is this changing? We do not know, but I am certainly watching closely. The simplest conclusive assertion I can share is that this election had little to do with the “cross-straits/communist China/rising tension” issue. It is possible for Taiwanese citizens to seek democratic avenues to express dissatisfaction or to teach a lesson to the ruling party, without it having to do with changing views of the Chinese Communist Party. Maybe even top election managers of the DPP could use that lesson, along with analysts and talking heads, so that we may gain a better, more informative sense of local Taiwanese politics. 29.11.2022

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