Outside observers are fond of appending the term “messy” to Taiwanese politics. It’s not always meant as a negative thing, but it’s an odd adjective to apply to a democracy, because democracy is supposed to be messy. If it’s suspiciously neat, that might be worth commenting on. But if it’s messy? Well, what kind of genuinely democratic debate isn’t? As the anthropologist David Graeber put it: “differences aren’t a problem, they’re a resource,” offering accountability and creativity. “Messy” disagreements and confrontations are a necessary byproduct of accessing that resource.
This thought occurs after a dramatic weekend in Taiwanese politics. Third-party candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) had agreed on a Saturday morning deadline for announcing who would top a joint presidential ticket, Ko or the the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜). But then the two sides failed to meet their own deadline, and Ko spent Sunday saying he would “fight to the end” as the presidential candidate for his own party, The Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). You could almost hear the keyboards tapping: m-e-s-s-y.
And yet, if anything, the most apt description would have been “not messy enough.” Ko and the KMT conducted a relatively open negotiation in the sense that they told everyone it was happening and offered updates. As a result, even while they negotiated, Ko had to deal with the potential awkwardness of being someone who benefitted from the Sunflower Movement and was now joining a coalition facilitated by former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). However, the two sides released only vague criteria over how they would decide who topped the ticket, not the precise details. No details about potential policy compromises were released. In the end, that meant the public at best got a bit of clutter. The healthiest, most democratic version of this thing would’ve been absolute carnage.
Now, obviously, this endorsement of mess shouldn’t be conflated with criticizing everyone who gets tired of partisan bickering. Ad hominem attacks or endless empty rhetoric about the other candidates’ generic badness could also come under the category of “mess,” and obviously they don’t add much to the public debate. These arguments aren’t the kind of differences that can be treated as much of a resource. But the real solution to that junk is not an aversion to mess, it’s creating different kinds of better quality arguments, with good quality information and questions. Or as you could put it: Better quality mess.
I write this as someone from England, familiar with the British state’s distaste for mess. When, in 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May called a third election in seven years (plus a Brexit referendum), the BBC repeatedly broadcast a vox pop interview with a lady whose response to the prospect was: ”Not another one! … There’s too much politics going on at the moment… .” Elections are often presented as an inherently dirty business in Britain, and when the media and wider population internalize this idea, it’s part of the reason someone like Boris Johnson can hide in a fridge to avoid questions and get away with it. Questions are messy. Acceptance of neatness as the preferred form of politics ends up in a stagnant non-debate where all of the most dramatic decisions are taken behind closed doors, by the same revolving pool of personnel, with the only difference being that they may have “put on weight” each time.
Fortunately, Taiwan’s political system has some inbuilt protection against this. The presidential elections are proportional. The winner is whoever gets the most votes. So every vote counts. And that makes for an open battle. In the U.K. the first past-the-post system means there are places where you could easily be unaware an election was ongoing, because everyone knows who’s going to win in that area. In Taiwan, the poster campaigns can’t be missed, and it’s common to see campaign representatives and offices.
Nevertheless, on all sides of the current debate, there’s room for more mess. Outside of the KMT-TPP negotiations, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Lai Ching-te’s (賴清德) campaign has been a bit like someone repeatedly hiding in a metaphorical fridge. He has stayed relentlessly on message and has either been vague in answering questions or, as he showed in the Q and A session announcing his vice-presidential running-mate, Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), he has been happy to shut down questions entirely if he disagrees with the premise. In that case, he said a question about what kind of message the Lai-Hsiao pairing was trying to send to China didn’t require an answer, because “questions from our citizens are what we value.” The format, as has often been the case, didn’t allow for a follow-up question from the reporter asking the question.
Being mildly disparaging or embarrassed about mess doesn’t help this cause. Eventually it facilitates an election where, from all candidates, there’s been very little detail about environmental or economic policy — with a scheduled debate on climate called off. The ideal is surely to have them pulling each other’s positions apart on these issues. Keeping things tidy won’t do that.
Image: Sam Yeh/AFP