I’m 72 years old, but recently I made a rookie mistake. I believed that Taiwanese politicians, when they signed an agreement, would honor that agreement and seek unity.
Forgive me for the long story that follows, but this is a small country that produces a lot of long stories.
The story starts with me wanting to vote. While Taiwan’s people live all over the world, you can only vote in person, on the exact day of the election.
I’m Taiwanese and live in Taipei, but travel the world as a democracy activist. I also spend as much time as I can in the United States, because my children and grandchildren live there.
Taiwan’s early election—on January 13—presented a conundrum. That’s a time of year I tend to spend with grandkids in the Bay Area. But I very much wanted to see a change at the top of the Taiwanese government.
After eight years in power, the ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has grown tired and corrupt, and needs replacing. Polls indicate that 60% of Taiwanese people wish for a change in central government, but there is clearly no agreement on who should replace the current administration. With the opposition divided between three candidates, the DPP’s presidential nominee, William Lai, was favored to win.
My vote wouldn’t make any difference, I thought. I was so confident in this that I bought plane tickets to go to California for Christmas and stay until Chinese New Year in February—thus missing the election.
The DPP came to power in 2016 promising democratic reform, but quickly showed that it had other plans. First, the DPP disbanded the Special Investigation Division (SID) of the Prosecutor’s Office, tasked with investigating high-office crimes.
Then, the party used its absolute control of the Legislative Yuan to pass laws allowing the government to take away or freeze the assets of the leading opposition Kuomintang (KMT) Party or any organization deemed to be controlled by KMT, without court order. In addition to KMT, several organizations have had assets seized or frozen, including the non-profit National Women’s League of the Republic of China (婦聯會) and the China Youth Corps (救國團). Even the special law protecting the domestic Red Cross organization was abolished.
New legislation removed elections for leaders of local water associations (水利會) and changed them to executive appointments. To me, the most offensive abuse of power came when the President of Taiwan University was duly elected by the school—and the government attempted to thwart his appointment and delayed his taking the post for a year. And after Taiwanese citizens voted contrary to DPP priorities on 10 national referenda in 2018, the DPP revised the Referendum Act to effectively block national referenda in the future.
The party’s corruption has been particularly clear in public works projects. Huge solar power contracts, subsidized by the government, were granted to companies with no prior experience except good connection with DPP. The city of Hsinchu spent $1.2 billion NT (about $39 million USD) building a baseball stadium that can’t be used because of construction errors—the field itself was filled with construction waste dirt. In the city of Taoyuan, a fishing pier built for yachts could not even withstand regular ocean waves.
And the abuses start from the government’s highest echelons. In 2019, after a journalist raised questions about President Tsai’s London School of Economics master’s thesis, the president sealed her academic records for 30 years as a matter of “national security.” The journalist was accused of libel and threatened with jail time, and fled to the U.S.
Later, the presidential security detail was caught smuggling cigarettes using the presidential plane. Only junior officers were punished, while the senior ones moved on to higher offices.
Records about the government’s purchases of vaccines from overseas and the sole domestic supplier have also been sealed, despite opposition parties’ requests to review them.
Taiwanese people, including me, have grown accustomed to this kind of behavior, and had resigned ourselves to the fact that the situation was unlikely to change anytime soon.
Then, on November 15, hope arrived. The divided opposition—Hou Yu-ih of KMT (the “Blue” party), and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (the “White” party), moved to come together. Hou and Ko even signed a written agreement to join forces, co-signed by KMT’s chairman and witnessed by former President Ma. It looked like the opposition would have a chance.
So, eager to participate in a more competitive election, I immediately changed my flight to return to vote, at considerable expense.
That was my rookie mistake.
Even in the face of corruption and frustration, unity is too hard to keep here. The proposed alliance started looking shaky the day after the agreement was signed, when supporters of the TPP expressed anger and disappointment with Ko, a political newcomer before his election as Taipei’s mayor.
The details of the written agreement soon caused more problems. It called for using polls to decide whether Hou or Ko would lead the opposition. But the polling results announced on November 18 caused chaos: They showed statistical ties. And the parties revealed that they had not made a clear agreement on which polls to use.
A frenzied debate ensured among the general public on how to determine statistical margin of error in polling. Accusations of trickery and betrayal flew between the two parties’ supporters, no doubt fanned eagerly by DPP.
Ko asked Terry Gou, the tycoon, who was a distant fourth in the polls, to step in to help with possible further negotiations. But Gou’s attempt to salvage the opposition union looked infantile, with the parties still arguing about polls.
The deal finally collapsed on November 24 in an embarrassing spectacle at the Hyatt Hotel in Taipei that was covered live on TV.
Gou had planned to hold closed talks with Hou and Ko on the 25th floor of the hotel. But the KMT insisted on an open discussion (i.e. no back-room deals, which Ko has often criticized).
Ko and Gou were late in entering the meeting room, leaving the KMT members alone at a desk next to a digital clock counting down to the registration deadline for candidates. If the deadline passed, Ko and Hou and Gou would all remain on the ballot, splitting the opposition—as had been the plan before the written agreement.
The session quickly turned combative. Before Ko and Gou arrived (which took more than 20 minutes), KMT and Gou spokespeople traded barbs over the use of the microphone. Once everyone was in the room, the disagreements reached such a low point that Hou brought out his phone to read aloud text messages from Ko about the race. Ko took issue with this, calling it “something that only celebrities and their wingmen would do.”
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, no agreement was reached during the 90-minute event.
Eventually, Gou did withdraw from the race, making it a three-person contest. But DPP’s Lai is back to being clearly favored, and is expected to win with 40%, with the rest split by Hou and Ko.
This will leave Taiwan with a president without majority support. Meanwhile, the Legislative Yuan will likely be divided across the three parties, leaving it similarly without a majority; one hopes that the opposition parties will be able to make an alliance on some legislation.
The legislative seats won by the opposition should, at least, provide some checks on the ruling DPP. But the divide will make achieving unity, and reaching common-sense solutions, even harder.
And I remain frustrated at being stuck with an expensive new ticket to fly to vote in an election that is likely to leave my homeland frustrated.