Why the DPP Lost

Two nights ago we went to dinner at the home of Mr. Yao Chia-wen and his wife, Chou Ching-yu. They were both present at the creation of the DPP, early front-line activists in the formation of a viable political opposition and, ultimately, ruling party.

Needless to say, they were frustrated by the election outcome. Their life’s work is now in danger of marginalization. The presidential election gives them something to work for, but there was much talk about what has happened to the DPP.

Yao’s analysis of the problem was structural, though he articulated it in terms of leadership….

He described how the DPP evolved as, essentially, a transformative movement. From the very outset the key goal has been fully developed democratization. That requires sovereignty – how else can a democratic people live by the laws they create together? But the obvious limit on sovereignty, imposed by China, was, in the first instance, somewhat remote. Their main problem has always been the KMT.

Their personal struggle is a pointed reminder of the brutality of KMT authoritarianism before 1986. It seems a long time ago now, but strict limits on speech and association and political organization were very much a part of their lives. Even after 1986, they had to fight every step of the way to make the DPP a viable political force and expand political freedoms across the island. Nothing came easy.

The political focus, therefore, was local. Immediate political tactics concentrated on creating events to get their message out to people in spite of the KMT-dominated media. When they gained legislative seats, the DPP became famous for theatrical physical assaults on KMT members, actions designed to represent and resist their structural subordination. The KMT pushed back against them and worked hard to limit their political growth. The primary enemy of the green was blue, and the blue was right in front of them in Taiwan, not across the Strait.

And then came 2000 and the striking victory of Chen Shui-bian in the presidential election (largely because the KMT vote was split between two candidates). The triumph, however, created a new political dynamic for the DPP. Where once they were on the outside looking in, able to press a radical, transformative agenda through protest and demonstration, now they were responsible for the stable functioning of the bureaucracy and use of executive power. Yao pointed out that this shift distracted the DPP leadership from their primary goal of through-going political change. He said that the party became more concerned with holding on to power, gaining more seats in the legislature, and this compromised its character. Yao said that the party became a campaign machine. Power gravitated to the party center, which now resided in the president’s office. Activists became hesitant to challenge decisions taken by the top leaders, not wanting to openly criticize the president and provide ammunition to the still powerful KMT. Party discipline trumped bold reform moves.

In a sense, Yao was complaining that Chen was not sufficiently radical. He did not put it quite in those terms but the analysis reminded me of sociologist Robert Michels notion of the iron law of oligarchy. Michels studied the German Social Democratic Party, the SPD, and pointed out that bureaucratization, and a certain institutional conservatism, are all but inevitable as political movements grow and become integrated more formally into administrative systems. Maurice Meisner uses the same concept to explain how the Chinese Communist Party lost its early revolutionary dynamism.

Thus, I would argue that the failures of the DPP were not simply a failure of Chen Shui-bian’s leadership, though he certainly could have handled the tricky situation better. Rather, the DPP faced a more common, and perhaps insoluble, problem of controlling the transition from radical political movement to responsible bureaucratic manager. I suspect that any organization in this position does not want to fully accept that it must change, that its radicalism will necessarily be reduced. And the DPP faced even more difficult circumstances due to its peculiar international status.

Indeed, China hardly came up in our conversation with Yao. He spoke mostly of KMT perfidy and the DPP leadership failure. I asked him directly where fit into all of this and whether he was worried that the PRC might really use force against Taiwan. He said he was not afraid of China. His courage was palpable.

China, though, creates a hard limit on political change in Taiwan. It is truly remarkable what the DPP has accomplished in the past twenty five years. No one could have predicted, in 1983, what Taiwan would become. But fuller expressions of sovereignty and independence, which the maximalist reform agenda requires, could threaten military intervention. This circumstance would seem to produce an even greater moderating effect than Michels “iron law.” And, if that is true, the DPP perhaps should have recognized the unique structural situation it was in and been more willing to scale back its plans for political change. Of course, Yao and Chou, after having personally sacrificed so much for the struggle (he was in jail for seven or eight years), would reject that idea. But iron laws tend not to be very personal. The DPP’s problem may not have been that it became less radical, but that it did not handle the process of de-radicalization effectively.

Interestingly enough, it seems that the electoral loss has shaken the DPP leadership. All the talk now is that Frank Hsieh, the presidential candidate, will almost certainly moderate DPP policy toward the mainland, which will limit the domestic reform agenda. Somewhere Michels is nodding his head…


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