25 June 2019
President Ma Ying-jeou (left) has suffered a huge setback in Taiwan's local elections. Tsai Eng-wen (right) could ride popular support toward the presidency in 2016. Photos: Bloomberg
President Ma Ying-jeou (left) has suffered a huge setback in Taiwan's local elections. Tsai Eng-wen (right) could ride popular support toward the presidency in 2016. Photos: Bloomberg

What Hong Kong democracy camp can learn from Taiwan polls

Taiwan’s local elections on Saturday are something Hong Kong can learn from, not only for their outcome but also for how it was achieved.

The resounding victory of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was the biggest rebuke yet of President Ma Ying-jeou’s efforts to promote closer economic integration across the Taiwan Strait.

The fallout from the debacle is only beginning to emerge but already, it has claimed Premier Jiang Yi-huah who has announced his resignation.

Ma, under pressure from his own party, is expected to make “an important announcement” on Wednesday which sources said could be his exit as Kuomintang party chief.

From Hong Kong’s perspective, these are purely domestic politics.

However, the Taiwanese rejection of China in this proxy referendum on political unification, is something that resonates in Hong Kong amid its own fight to preserve its freedoms from increasing encroachment by Beijing.

The biggest lesson Hong Kong people can learn from their Taiwanese cousins is that there’s more than one way to fight for — and exercise — democracy.

It always starts with engagement. More than 600,000 first-time voters, about 3.5 percent of 18 million registered voters, cast their ballots on Saturday.

We can assume that tens of thousands of them are students, many of whom took over parliament this past summer in what came to be known as the Sunflower Movement.

They were protesting a cross-strait service agreement they said gave Beijing a disproportionate influence in Taiwan’s economy.

Taipei was forced to shelve the deal and the students ended their action but continued the fight.

After withdrawing from their 24-day occupation of the Legislative Yuan, the students lost no time taking the campaign to the community.

The result had the effect of a political campaign, giving voters stark choices in the election that would follow months later.   

By actively taking part in the election process and bringing their numbers to bear on the opposition’s sweeping victory, they took their campaign to the next level in a significant way.

In contrast, only 60 percent of registered voters in Hong Kong are between 18 and 25 against 80 percent who are over 50.

That means first-time voters in Hong Kong are unlikely to have a significant sway over the outcome of an election. 

Which is why a high participation rate will have a greater psychological impact than the result of the voting itself.

Young Hong Kong people who are driving the democracy protests can emulate their Taiwan counterparts by using the full breadth of the democratic process, no matter how limited, to move their campaign forward.

Instead of occupying public buildings in random and sporadic attempts to disrupt government functions, they should now be thinking of a more organized, more focused strategy.

Also, it is better to keep ordinary citizens on their side, rather than make it easy for the government to turn public opinion against them.

Finally, Hong Kong pan-democrats can take a leaf out of Tsai Eng-wen’s playbook.

The DPP chairwoman orchestrated the landslide using old-style politics by uniting different factions in her party and marshalling various forces.

Tsai’s crowning glory was the victory of the DPP mayoralty candidate in Taichung, which underlined her capability to expand the party’s influence to northern Taiwan, a traditionally Kuomintang stronghold.

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EJ Insight writer

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