New York Times: When Populism Can’t Beat Identity Politics

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — Populism was supposed to be the winning formula. With the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (D.P.P.) steadily campaigning on growing anxiety over threats to Taiwan’s national identity, the Kuomintang, a party that favors close ties to China, risked being consigned to playing permanent opposition. Populism seemed to offer it a way out.

Yet the same playbook failed him and his party miserably in the general elections this weekend. Not only was Mr. Han unable to woo new voters; he couldn’t even hold on to many traditional Kuomintang sympathizers. President Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected with 57.1 percent of the popular vote; the D.P.P. won 61 of the 113 seats in the national Legislature.

The D.P.P.’s victory is partly the result, as many analysts had predicted, of its successful efforts to drag the election back onto the conventional battleground of sovereignty and identity. Ms. Tsai invoked often the protests in Hong Kong to remind voters of the threat that China poses.

Yet the D.P.P. election stands for more than a rejection of the Kuomintang’s cozying up to China; it was also a repudiation of Mr. Han’s populist discourse.

Mr. Han’s stump speeches were full of such themes. He claimed to know the people and represent them against a craven elite. Taiwan had once burst with vitality and prosperity, he said, but now it was stagnating because the Tsai administration had put its interests above those of the population. At a rally in early December, Mr. Han denounced “a small cabal” at the helm of the D.P.P. “They feast and feast,” he railed. “The factions divide the spoils among themselves.”

“These people,” he added, “eat the flesh and drink the blood of Taiwanese people. Now, after three and a half years, all of Taiwan is sick.”

Mr. Han spoke relentlessly about his connection with the real people, the “shumin.”

But by then D.P.P. had also figured out a way to strike at Mr. Han’s credibility as a populist: It began to argue that it was Ms. Tsai, not Mr. Han, who was working hard for the people and that Mr. Han was no “shumin” at all.

Public trust in Mr. Han plummeted over the course of 2019. According to surveys conducted by Tai Li-an, one of Taiwan’s most respected pollsters, and published by the news site Formosa, the percentage of respondents who said they distrusted Mr. Han rose from more than 27 percent in February to about 57 percent in November. His support among independent voters withered, from more than 41 percent in February to less than 15 percent in December. Even among supporters of the Kuomintang camp, his base, support dropped from nearly 89 percent to a little more than 66 percent over the same period.

Yes, concerns over encroachment by China and threats to Taiwan’s sovereignty were critical in determining this weekend’s election. But the D.P.P. also beat Mr. Han at his own game by convincing voters that he is a lousy populist.

Full article by Nathan Batto for the NYT:

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