Monday, December 21, 2020

Sexy Legislator Freddy Lim Is So Smart


I actually had several working titles for this post but this was my favorite.

Over a few shows spanning several months, Taiwan Report has covered the goings-on of Taiwan’s smaller progressive parties, specifically the rise of the Statebuilding Party, the fall of the New Power Party (NPP), and the efforts of politicians like Freddy Lim to form alliances across party lines. They’ve also offered occasional predictions at not only where the DPP is going, but what sort of real opposition might arise to face it — whether it’s some newcomer party, a DPP breakaway faction, an already-existing minor party getting a boost, or the KMT actually pulling itself together. 

I don’t have the answer to any of those questions, but I wanted to point out a trend in Taiwan progressive circles: for the most part, they seem to have moved away from forming new parties and focused their efforts more on building cross-party coalitions of likeminded lawmakers (I also suspect various unelected or not-currently-holding-elected-office people are quietly involved in this. I’d be surprised if they weren’t.)

To recap on what’s already been said, Donovan has pointed out a few things. 

First, the Statebuilding Party (with one elected legislator, Chen Bo-wei) has gained a fair amount of popularity given how new it is. And yet the party seems uninterested in recruited defectors from the NPP, despite a great deal of similarity in their platforms (supporters and members of both run in similar political circles). This could be because, when you do have such an intertwined activist/progressive political scene — mostly based in Taipei — full of passionate people who mostly know each other and all want to make their mark, it’s a petri dish for big egos and big drama and Statebuilding wants to avoid that and build a different sort of culture by avoiding recruiting from the same drama circles and basing themselves in Kaohsiung.

Second, well, I’m just going to go ahead and quote him here:

Independent Legislator Freddy Lim (林昶佐) has formed a “progressive youth alliance” with individuals across party lines to focus on constitutional, local self government and land reform. The “alliance” would be a space for discussing national issues, with members including like-minded people he has known since before he entered politics, he said.

He went on to say Taiwan is at a historic juncture and faces a strategic opportunity to establish its national values and positions, build a progressive nation and establish a key role in international society…

This is the second time Freddy Lim been involved in a cross-party grouping, the first referred to itself as a frontline on Taiwan sovereignty. While he claims he has no current plans to form a new political party, he isn’t ruling it out going forward.

From my vantage point, it looks like anyone who might be inclined to form a new progressive pro-Taiwan party has been looking at the way the NPP has been in a series of meltdowns that don’t come across as a string of problems so much as one long nuclear disaster and been…disinclined from attempting to unite people who might share many common goals but who have trouble getting along on a personal level. Ever hear the old joke about the thing a leftist can’t stand the most is another leftist? It’s not even really a joke so much as a factual description. 

If it’s not egos or personalities getting in the way, it’s small differences in those otherwise similar goals that people who don’t share similar views may take for granted. One example of this is the Statebuilding Party’s tendency to take more of a localist line than other progressives. That said, the NPP was never a great friend to immigrants, caring more about local labor than the mistreatment of foreign blue-collar labor, the ability of foreign professional labor to accept jobs, or the issue of dual nationality. But weren’t generally against us either.

I do suspect that there are people on roughly the same side as Statebuilding who are pro-localist but worry that going too far in that direction, and refusing to embrace a more international perspective might lead progressivism in Taiwan to take an ideological turn one might associate with the right wing: not so much Make Taiwan Great Again but Taiwan First, or even Taiwan Only (as in, a belief that Taiwan doesn’t need the support of other countries, when it absolutely does.)  If that sounds a little Trumpist to you, good. That means you’re paying attention.

To be fair, in some ways I like the Statebuilding Party; on many issues they have their heads on right. In others, I worry about the way they display the left's tendency towards authoritarianism, which is just as scary to me as the right's. 

So that may be another reason why NPP defectors and Statebuilding folks aren’t exactly itching to work together. The progressive wing of the DPP would love to be on good terms with both without giving up their major-party advantage. 

However, all of them are willing to work with a reasonable progressive independent like Freddy Lim, regardless of party. Freddy, to his credit, seems smart enough to see that and do something with it. Rather than trying to herd cats who are just going to fight over shoeboxes and microfiber pillows once together, he’s getting them all to agree that treats are good but otherwise letting them do their own thing. 

What’s cool in my opinion — which I think Freddy has also realized — is that obviously there are advantages to having a party, as Donovan notes: 

There are now easily enough defectors from the New Power Party to form a party, and one with a fair number of elected politicians. Being an independent allows considerable personal freedom, but there are institutional rules that benefit political parties. Political parties are eligible for subsidies, can form caucuses and nominate party list legislators. It is also helpful from a marketing perspective.


But third parties are still at a disadvantage, just as they are in the US. Therefore, building cross-party alliances gives people with similar beliefs across party lines the ability to get their progressive agenda heard even if any party they form together might not have enough support on its own to stand up to the Big Two (the KMT and the DPP), without having to work with pushy, annoying, narcissistic people they don’t like and without the disadvantages of actually forming a party that ultimately might not win that much power. 

So while Donovan might be watching for the creation of a “new, viable political party”, I’m not necessarily doing the same. I don't think that's the direction they’re interested in going in, and it’s fascinating to me where it might lead now that Taiwanese progressives are realizing that, with the way hierarchies (and the existing establishment) don’t work well for them, that building their own social and political structures within or alongside existing ones might help them better attain their goals.

The people involved surely also realize that, losing out on the marketing aspect means they might not make a name for themselves as individuals the way one might as the Big Ego Head of a Big Ego Party, but are willing to put that on the line because (perhaps?) the agenda matters more than the personal profile. 

It’s also meaningful and smart when one looks at how much support for across-the-board progressivism exists in Taiwan, which is not as much as one would hope. For example, people remain accepting but tepid of marriage equality, but oppose common-sense changes to adultery and divorce laws, and I’ll bet you real money that the abortion reform push will face opposition once it becomes an issue bad actors can use to divide people). I have more to say about whether Taiwan is or isn't a "liberal" country, but will save that for a future post. The quick summary: it depends on what you compare it to.

The NPP showed that Taiwan may be ready for a truly progressive party, but perhaps not ready enough to give it enough votes to create lasting opposition from the left to the DPP.

However, it is quite possible and proven effective to pass various progressive measures through cross-party discussion and agreement. Politicians can be brought together to do this, and then all head back to their own offices and party affiliations before they all start getting annoyed with each other again and that One Guy with a big ego just sort of pisses on everything (you know who I mean). 

Voters can generally be persuaded to okay individual initiatives if their preferred party or lawmaker backs them, whereas getting such voters to shift party identity is a much bigger ask. 

Simply put, in both Taiwanese and progressive spaces, you get more done when you work together from where you already are party-wise rather than trying to form a new party. The ability to see that, act on it and actually get somewhere with it show political smarts of the very best kind. 

That leaves us with the question of where formal opposition that can hold the DPP accountable is going to come from in 2024. This will be especially important when Tsai, who has clearly read The Art of War by Lee Teng-hui, steps down.

Other than being pretty sure that it won’t come from the left, and it won’t come from a DPP breakaway (the future of the DPP is probably with the same younger progressives who work with Freddy, any breakaway is going to be made up of more conservative oldsters who probably won’t get very far), I feel quite comfortable saying I have no idea. 

In other words, Smart Sexy Legislator Freddy Lim for President 2024! 

And keep an eye out for the way that younger Taiwanese progressives are looking at how party structures aren’t working for them, and finding cross-party solutions that do which get their views aired far more than they would if they took a traditional route. 

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