Taiwan opposition clings on for political relevance as voters shun Beijing

Selina Johansson

Street politics is not Eric Chu’s natural element. The chair of the Kuomintang, Taiwan’s largest opposition party, is an establishment figure whose political career was kickstarted by family connections. But on Friday, the 60-year-old will camp out in a square in central Taipei, together with thousands of supporters.

It is a last-ditch effort to mobilise voters in favour of four referendums on Saturday backed by the KMT. While the issues on the ballot are local, the vote represents a test of the party’s future as a viable political force, and will be closely watched in Beijing.

“If the KMT withers away, it will cause great concern because it could embolden the Taiwan independence forces, and we would suggest that chances for peaceful unification are running out,” said a Chinese scholar specialising in Taiwan affairs who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The KMT, which ruled China before it was overthrown in the Communist revolution, imposed its Chinese nationalist ideology on Taiwan after fleeing to the island in 1949. Even after adapting its policies during Taiwan’s democratisation in the 1990s, it continues to embrace the idea that Taiwan and the mainland both belong to one China.

That belief is increasingly out of step with public opinion as an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese reject unification with China, and over the past decade, the KMT’s support has gone into a tailspin. According to the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University, the proportion of voters identifying with the KMT has dropped to 18.7 per cent, compared with 31.4 per cent for the ruling Democratic Progressive party.

On Saturday, the KMT is hoping to capitalise on voters’ fears about food safety. When President Tsai Ing-wen opened Taiwan’s market to US pork with tiny traces of the feed additive ractopamine last year, the KMT denounced Tsai and the DPP as putting the public’s health at risk.

Tsai Ing-wen poses for picture with supporters holding placards during a Democratic Progressive Party event to promote the upcoming referendum
Chinese threats and pressure have strengthened support for Tsai Ing-wen, centre, and the ruling Democratic Progressive party © Walid Berrazeg/SOPA/LightRocket/Getty

“Pork is something where the public is mostly on their side, which is pretty unusual for most of the KMT’s core issues,” said Nathan Batto, a political scientist at Academia Sinica, a research institution.

Another KMT-organised vote calls for referendums to be held along with general elections, overturning a DPP reform.

The party is also backing two other referendums. One calls for Taiwan’s fourth nuclear power plant, which was decommissioned without ever having gone into operation, to be revived. The other demands a liquid natural gas terminal be moved from its planned location to protect an algal reef on Taiwan’s west coast.

When they were launched, all four votes looked set to pass, threatening to derail the government’s push for closer trade ties with the US and undermine its energy policy.

But the dynamics have changed in the ruling party’s favour. According to polling company Formosa, opponents of restarting the nuclear power plant and moving the planned LNG terminal hold a solid lead, while the advantage for supporters of retying referendums to general elections has shrunk dramatically.

Only support for reinstating the ractopamine pork ban remains high, but even on that issue, “Yes” camp’s lead is much narrower among those who are determined to vote on Saturday.

Analysts said the shift was a result of the international support Tsai’s government had attracted in the face of increasing pressure from Beijing.

China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to invade if Taipei refuses unification indefinitely, has stepped up military aircraft incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary said the incursions resembled “rehearsals” for an attack.

Beijing also frequently runs disinformation campaigns against Taiwan and tries to undermine the country’s foreign relations.

“The geopolitical context today is totally different from a year ago,” said Lev Nachman, an expert in Taiwan politics at Harvard University. “Even though it is not a national election year, the China factor still has an impact.”

The DPP is taking advantage of that sentiment and has accused the opposition of trying to discredit the government, even at the cost of undermining national security.

“The KMT started this with the idea of making it into a vote to reject Tsai and the DPP, but now it is the DPP who are making it into a vote to back Tsai,” Batto added. “I don’t think these referendums are going to do anything for the KMT to recover as a party that can challenge for power nationally again.”

Chu is fighting back, though. “If the Kuomintang does not stand by the people’s side, who will?” he asked on Tuesday.

“I again call upon the masses and the party’s supporters to courageously stand forward and tell the government: you have done wrong!”

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