DPP learns a hard lesson from the Taiwanese voters

While fake news and Chinese interference played a part, the DPP's electoral defeat is also a result of their failure to govern humbly

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TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- During the victory speech she delivered on Jan. 16, 2016 after being elected Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) told the crowds of adoring supporters that she and her party would lead the country humbly in recognition of the lessons learned in the historical struggle for Taiwanese democracy.

Just two years later, it was a very different scene as the public passed judgment on whether she has lived up to those promises in 2016’s elections. Their verdict was clear.

So, what has gone wrong. There is no doubt that there are two key factors which hurt the results of the DPP (民進黨) candidates across the country: the difficult global economic situation, and the negative reaction at home to many of the party's key policies.

However, there has also been much criticism of Tsai and her leadership team, with a perception that, far from being humble representatives of the people they promised to be, they have quickly adopted attitudes of aloof and out-of-touch politicians.

Over the past two years, the DPP has made several important reforms that will have a huge impact on the future development of Taiwan. These include public pension reforms, changes to the labor laws, the introduction of a compulsory day off each week, transitional justice, and the controversial moves to strip the KMT (國民黨) of assets they acquired illegally from the state.

These are also policies that will benefit Taiwan and Taiwanese people in the long term. But in the short term, many people are still unable to see or recognize any benefits of these policies. This showed when voters went to the polls.

As with all elections, economic factors have also played a crucial role. People in all democracies tend to vote in line with their own economic circumstances and in support of candidates who promise greater prosperity. It is also a common trend for ruling parties to retain votes when the economy is strong, but when the economy is struggling the ruling parties tend to get punished.

While the DPP's economic policies have resulted in a decent overall performance and seen exports grow, those benefits haven’t been felt by ordinary Taiwanese people. For example, while developments in Taiwan’s technology sector have been extremely positive, this hasn't led to any material benefits in the lives of ordinary manual workers in that sector.

There is also no disputing the role that external factors have played in influencing public opinion. The Chinese Communist Party (中國共產黨)and their United Front operatives have pumped considerable amounts of money into supporting pro-Beijing candidates. Disinformation originating from China has swarmed across social media.

This very likely played a role in swinging the votes of those whose political views remain malleable, or those with only a vague understanding of Taiwan’s history, as well as those already hostile to the DPP’s reforms.

Looking back on Taiwan News stories since the election in 2016, there are three main external factors which seem to have had a bearing on the result.

Firstly, there has been much more tension between Taiwan and China. To counter this, the Tsai administration has strengthened relations with the U.S., establishing closer diplomatic and military associations.

The administration has also worked to reduce Taiwanese reliance on the Chinese market by encouraging Taiwanese businesses to return and invest in Taiwan, and also by greatly expanding trade relations with other Southeast Asian countries.

Western Kentucky University scholar Timothy Rich has said that his research shows that voters do not like seeing China attacking Taiwan and undermining its standing in the international community. But he also claims they do not blame Tsai and her government for it.

Secondly, AP news and others have reported that it is beyond question that China is trying to use diplomatic, economic, and military pressure to undermine Tsai Ing-wen and her administration.

RAND Corporation researcher Derek Grossman noted that if the DPP and Tsai lose these local elections, it will prove that China’s attempts to demonize Tsai and the DPP have worked.

Thirdly, the New York Times and others have reported that substantial amounts of fake news and disinformation, mainly originating in China, has been used with an aim of destroying confidentiality and trust in the Tsai administration, and to build support for those candidates who are more likely to support unification with China.

While all of these issues played a role, there is still no denying that these elections are an assessment by the people of Taiwan of how Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP Government have performed over the past two and a half years. The views of the Taiwanese people are clear.

It is therefore crucial that Tsai Ing Wen and her team review and reflect on their past decisions, policies, and performance with the humble attitude they promised to govern with when elected.

But at the same time, it is also vital that the National Security Bureau and other responsible government agencies takes the necessary steps ensure that Taiwan’s democratic system and rule of law cannot be influenced by externally generated fake news and disinformation.

They must ensure that cyber-attacks and overseas funding cannot unduly influence the 2020 Presidential elections. On this, the clock is already ticking.

Photo edited by Lyla Liu