Taiwan elections: DPP leans hard on China threat, shoots itself in the foot Taiwan News

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — The big political cleavage in Taiwan between the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) is their differing stances on Taiwanese identity, national sovereignty, and China, while the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) does everything. it can dodge these issues. Check out the “core principles” page on the TPP’s website, where there is no mention of those issues or national defense, which in a Taiwanese context amounts to ignoring a herd of elephants in the room.

Both the KMT and DPP have left-wing histories and right-wing elements as well as socially liberal and socially conservative members, and historically, the changes in Taiwan that are considered progressive have come from both parties. The KMT in 2018 took the socially conservative stance of being against marriage equality, but that is more the exception than the rule.

The current membership of the KMT is now more conservative, due to their near-complete collapse in support from younger voters. Their politicians mostly don’t seem to be playing the social conservative card, at least not at the top level, or with any consistency.

This means that in local elections, there is little clearly differentiating the parties. Candidates’ platforms are typically very similar: infrastructure, social programs, various subsidies, housing plans, public transport, and so forth.

Enter the Dragon

This time, however, the DPP is trying to differentiate itself by bringing the Chinese threat into the local elections. In September, I wrote that this was one of the unique factors in this election, but since then the DPP has sharply increased its emphasis on it.

True, a few KMT politicians have tried to bring in the Chinese threat, but there is no coordinated strategy to do so on the pan-blue side. Former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), for example, said “vote for the DPP and the youth will go to war” and “the Chinese Communists opposing Taiwan independence is no accident, vote for the KMT and there will be no war, Because naturally, your vote on city councilor and the mayor is just the spark needed to trigger an invasion.

On the DPP side, there is a coordinated strategy for diplomacy with China. While we won’t know until the votes are in, indications are now that at best it has done little more than shore up the base a little, and at worst it may have convinced voters that the party is out of touch with local concerns.

Shooting themselves in the foot

As we’ll get to, the problem isn’t with trying to differentiate the party based on the Chinese threat — it’s that the DPP is going about it the wrong way. It’s like they’ve been given a great weapon, but are using it to shoot themselves in the foot.

It’s clear why they’re using this strategy. It worked wonders for them in the national elections in 2016 and 2020.

But local elections are a very different creature and require a different approach. The DPP strategy has failed to provide anything meaningful at the local level — but they could have!

Out of touch with local concerns

One problem with the DPP approach seems to be coming right from the top levels of the party, and party Chair Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) herself, who has an international and national viewpoint, but can come across as out of touch with local issues.

Take for example Tsai’s statement that if the DPP does poorly in the election, “it will influence how the world views Taiwan.” She’s right, of course, we can expect many hyperventilating headlines like: “Pro-China party wins Taiwan elections!”

What those news outlets, and it seems Tsai herself, seem to be forgetting is that voters in this election are choosing candidates on issues like preschool access and subsidized dentures for grandma, not on geostrategic considerations. They, rightfully, consider that an issue for national elections, local politicians have no significant sway over international affairs or the threat from China.

Tsai has also said a “vote for the DPP” equated to “defending democracy” as it would “send the entire world the right message.” Not only is she making the same mistake as with the previous quote, it comes across like she doesn’t understand that voting for only one party is undemocratic, and is barely a step up from some petulant deep-blue KMT politicians blaming their election losses. on an undemocratic “green terror.”

Resist China, protect Taiwan and never surrender

Somewhat more constructive is the “resist China, protect Taiwan” (报中保台) push, though I prefer DPP mayoral candidate Chen Shih-chung’s (陳時中) variation of “resist the Communists, protect Taiwan” (把共保台) as it more accurately identifies the true enemy. Hundreds of DPP candidates have signed off on this, but none in the KMT or TPP have, with the exception of Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕), who has endorsed it verbally.

Many DPP politicians have also signed a “never surrender” pledge. These actions are useful. After all, it is good to know where they stand on China.

But here’s the problem, their opponents have a point when they call the DPP out on this: They’re just slogans. This is where the DPP really dropped the ball. They could have done so much more with this that would have been relevant and meaningful in local elections, not just nationalistic grandstanding.

The threat from China is real, and a local issue

The threat from China is real, and is an issue for voters, even in this local election. Due to local law, polls can’t be cited specifically in the ten days before an election, but in one, the China threat appeared on the list of issues Taipei voters were most concerned about in choosing the mayor, albeit lower on the list than some other local issues. If it made the list of the “top” concern for those voters, it is fairly certain that a much larger number would include it as “a” concern.

Should an invasion occur, local leaders will play critical roles, as has been demonstrated in Ukraine. Importantly for this election, what are the candidates’ plans to prepare for invasion now?

If any candidates had any plans, they certainly weren’t publicizing them. And with the issue on the minds of many voters, why has the DPP totally dropped the ball on this in favor of slogans and trying to get voters more worried about the reaction of the international press rather than preparing for the very real threat that our communities could be under from China?

Where are the plans for how to respond, organize and mobilize? That’s all done locally, involving the police, emergency responders, firefighters, and other key personnel.

How about plans, classes, and information for the public to get involved and prepare? How about plans for hardening key infrastructure, or tackling the issue of air raid shelters, which are often spaces used for storage?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg on potential issues and problems to tackle in preparation for the worst. Local governments prepare for typhoons and earthquakes, and here in Taichung tackling flooding has often been a campaign issue, so why isn’t it a potential war?

The DPP could have made it real

There is so much tangible that the DPP could have campaigned on this issue that would be very relevant in a local election, and provided a clear connection between candidates and voters’ future safety and security. It would have played to the party’s strengths and made the “resist China, protect Taiwan” campaign slogan actually substantive.

This is, of course, just one issue voters would have considered, but it’s not an inconsequential one. It would have truly differentiated the party on an issue most of the public could get behind, shifted debate towards territory in which the public trusts the DPP, and given the party a unifying and meaningful message to get behind.

Campaigning heavily on “resist China, protect Taiwan” sounds good, but with absolutely nothing backing it up, in local elections, voters will vote for grandma’s subsidized dentures.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. Follow him on Twitter: @donovan_smith.

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