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Taiwan election: A venerable ruling party stares into the abyss (+video)

A political shift

With the economy in a tailspin, a backlog of domestic problems, and unease over deepening ties with China, voters may swing decisively to the opposition in the Jan. 16 election. 

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    Tsai Ing-wen, second from right in yellow, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party, stumps in Taipei, Taiwan on Jan. 13, 2016. Taiwan will hold its presidential election on Jan. 16.
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As Taiwan's voters head to the polls this weekend, the usual raucous campaign rallies, the blaring sound trucks, and the throngs of cheering voters are fewer than usual.

The fading of vibrant political street theater may be a sign of democratic maturity. It also shows the inroads that social media has made here. 

But amid hard economic times, there are also signs that voter turnout for the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) on January 16 may sink to new lows. As President Ma Ying-jeou steps down after two terms in office, polls suggest that the KMT faces the worst election prospects since Taiwan's democratic era began more than two decades ago.

Taiwan's elections have consequences far beyond its shores. The 2016 vote is a showcase in Asia for open government and liberal values, and it serves as a counter-example to autocratic rule on the Chinese mainland where Taiwan’s politics are closely watched.

For Taiwan, the elections also serve as a foil to Beijing's threats and its long-stated ambition to annex the self-ruled island of 23 million people. As a campaign video from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) argues: “If you want to maintain your freedom, come out to vote.”

Nationalists on the ropes

Getting out the vote is certainly top priority for the KMT as it faces unprecedented headwinds. The party, which currently controls both the presidency and the legislature, is being seriously challenged by a resurgent opposition for both.

“We’re in a recession and voters are not happy,” says veteran KMT lawmaker Lin Yu-fang. “We need to do something to cheer people up and get them out the door.”

That was the aim on Jan. 9 here when the KMT put on a rare show of people power, mobilizing some 100,000 supporters. Busloads of voters from the Taipei area marched to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial and Democracy Square plaza. Party leaders headed the procession, including President Ma, the KMT's presidential candidate Eric Chu and their wives. Legislative candidates joined them on stage as the crowd sang the refrain “unity is power” to the tune of the American Civil War ballad, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

For all its frothy excitement, the rally signaled a party in crisis after a year of infighting and the abrupt replacement of its presidential candidate just three months ago.

Party leaders proclaimed success for Ma's policies after eight years in office and applauded his rapprochement with China that has widened the door for direct trade, travel, and tourism across the Taiwan Strait.

The rank-and-file need a morale boost said one of its officials, since the party could be staring into the electoral abyss on Saturday.

Heavy-metal candidate

For example, Mr. Lin, the KMT veteran, is seeking a fifth term in the legislature. But he faces a new kind of political opponent and party. His chief rival is heavy-metal musician Freddy Lim, who fronts the rock band Chthonic.

Mr. Lim co-founded the New Power Party (NPP), which is attracting idealistic young first-time voters. They flock to NPP rallies to hear earnest speeches from Lim and other NPP candidates who plead for more social justice, shared prosperity, respect for minority rights – and the end of KMT rule.

Against Lim's rock-star image and his energetic appeals for a fresh approach, Lin is quietly walking the streets, shaking hands with constituents, and reminding them of his record as chair of the legislature’s influential committee on foreign affairs and national defense. But it is a hard sell. The KMT, one of the world’s richest ruling parties, is stumbling after 70 years as Taiwan’s dominant political force, amid an economic tailspin, a backlog of unsolved domestic problems, and unease over deepening ties with China.

Beijing and Washington have stakes in the outcome, but they have stayed mostly quiet, awaiting the results of Saturday's vote.

“President Ma has failed to meet the expectations of the people,” says Joseph Wu, secretary-general of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and adviser to its presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen, the front-runner. “People are very frustrated and very disappointed, not just with him but with the whole KMT.”

The disappointment has been simmering for some time but boiled over after Ma's re-election in 2012, when it began a free fall after decades of stability.

“The KMT has been bleeding support for the past few years,” says political scientist Nathan Batto of Academia Sinica.

The collapse became apparent in November 2014 when the DPP or their allies won a landslide in local elections. The opposition now controls all but one of the island’s major population centers.

“The 2014 debacle may now be the new normal,” says Mr. Batto, pointing to falling incomes and the erosion of traditional social networks as reasons why voters have lost confidence in the KMT.

Vote-buying accusations 

Taiwan is Asia’s fourth-largest economy. But average household income peaked in 2000 and has been stuck below 1997 levels since Ma was first elected in 2008. The economy barely grew in 2015 and averaged only 2 percent during Ma's two terms in power. The economy is heavily dependent on foreign trade, which has been shrinking at double-digit rates, including with China, its largest trade partner.

Against this gloomy backdrop, the KMT's political machine is gearing up to turn out the vote this weekend. Traditionally, this has often meant buying votes through local operatives. Vote buying is illegal here and often prosecuted. But observers say the habit dies hard. While it is unlikely to impact the presidential race, it could swing some legislative seats, a crucial prize for the party and one of its last levers of power.

Mr. Wu, the DPP official, says some of the island's legislative districts are vulnerable to vote buying, especially in central and southern Taiwan. “We've asked our local governments to crack down seriously on this,” he says.

Independent observers point out, however, that there are often more accusations of vote-buying than can be proven in a court of law. It can also be a ploy to tarnish an opponent's image unfairly, as appears to be the case with Chiang Wan-nan and some other KMT candidates in this race. Mr. Chiang is the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-Shek, the Nationalist leader who lost China’s civil war then retreated to Taiwan which he ruled until his death in 1975.  

While most media attention is focused on the presidential contest between the DPP's Tsai and the KMT's Chu, the legislative races are crucial. The presidential winner can be stymied without a supportive legislature. That happened the last time DPP held the presidency from 2000-2008.

Ms. Tsai has therefore campaigned relentlessly on the theme of winning a majority of the body's 113 seats. In areas where it is weak, such as six of eight districts in Taipei, the DPP has no candidates of its own but is endorsing a plethora of small parties or independent candidates.

Coalition-in-waiting

This coalition building approach is controversial, says Batto, since it means fewer slots for DPP candidates. Compared to other DPP leaders, Tsai has “a completely different idea of how the country should be run politically should the DPP win,” he says. She is reaching out to anyone who could give her party an edge over the KMT, including Lim, the rock musician.

As a result, the DPP could end up with legislative control in league with parties that did not exist even a year ago. These include Lim's NPP and the Social Democratic Party, both left-of-center offshoots of the Sunflower Movement of civic activists in 2014 who occupied the national legislature for three weeks and blocked a major trade agreement with China. 

In a healthy democracy, a change in ruling parties is normal. But for Taiwan more is on the line than a routine transfer of power because of relations with China that cast a long shadow over aspirations for a national identity and international recognition as well as democratic maturity.

There's a growing consensus that Ma moved too far too fast in signing agreements with Beijing to normalize relations, often without much public consultation. Even Mr. Chu, the KMT presidential candidate, has said he would proceed more cautiously on China, if elected.

“Taiwan's economy is at risk of being absorbed by China,” says Norman Yin, professor of banking and finance at National Chengchi University and adviser to James Soong, a third-party presidential candidate. “If we don't have economic autonomy, we can't have political autonomy.”

China relations in the spotlight

All major political parties say the island's hard-won democracy is not negotiable. Yet there is strong disagreement on how to manage affairs across the Taiwan Strait in ways that do not compromise national security and sovereignty while keeping open trade and investment.

Getting the balance right is an art, says Prof. Yin. “We're not against China, but we need to find a different way to deal with them,” he says. “Ma has moved too fast and caused people to react against him. We need a new model for doing business.”

The KMT's Lin does not disagree. But he questions whether the DPP has the answer. “We have to be realistic,” he says. “If we want to keep our society prosperous and secure, we need good relations with the People's Republic (of China).”

Tsai has pledged to uphold the “status quo” with China, while declining to endorse the “one China” doctrine that both Beijing and the KMT say is the basis for their cooperation.

Tsai says that the KMT's approach is only “one option” and that Beijing is more flexible than it appears. And voters seem unmoved by the KMT’s warnings over what might happen if China snubs a future DPP government.

Many if not most Taiwanese are sure of one thing: they are dissatisfied. And they are ready to try something new.

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