Spending the Fall of 2014 in Taipei and part of early 2015 in Delhi, it was stunning to witness the meteoric rises of two anti-establishment politicians in the Asian capitals. Ko Wen-je and Arvind Kejriwal both campaigned on platforms of clean governance, fighting corruption, and bringing power back to ordinary citizens by participatory democracy and greater transparency.
Their efforts were successful, with Ko becoming Mayor of Taipei City and Kejriwal the Chief Minister of Delhi. During their campaigns, both intentionally distanced themselves not only from the historically dominant ruling party (the Kuomintang/KMT in Taiwan and Congress Party in India) but also the party that had traditionally gathered and organized opposition voices (the Democratic Progressive Party/DPP in Taiwan and the Bharatiya Janata Party/BJP in India). Ko and Kejriwal earned reputations as plain-talking men of the people, in contrast with what many regarded as entitled and privileged candidates of the better-known parties.
The rises of Ko and Kejriwal are significant not just when taken in their local contexts, but also as potential examples of how a spirited outsider can break the mold in places where a two-party framework seems defined or inevitable. Their campaigns say more about the flaws in the parties they defeated as well as the two-party-dominated political cultures they upended than may appear obvious at first glance. Thus, this article seeks to study the successes of Ko and Kejriwal in-depth and draw insights that may be applicable in other democratic countries in Asia and beyond.
But first, the differences between Ko and Kejriwal’s campaigns and governance should be acknowledged. Most importantly, Delhi is not Taipei and Taiwan is not India. Differences between the two capitals, culturally, economically and politically, are great and limit viable comparison. Other key points of distinction include that Kejriwal had a greater political profile at the start of his most recent campaign than Ko, given the former’s reputation as an anti-corruption activist dating back years, including in the Jan Lokpal movement that captivated India in 2011-12. Kejriwal had even served a brief prior term as Chief Minister of Delhi from late 2013 until early 2014, which ended in his resignation to protest government failure to move forward with anti-corruption initiatives. In addition, Kejriwal has co-founded a political party to advance his vision, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whereas a key part of Ko’s appeal became that he truly was a political independent with no party affiliation. AAP has also experienced some divisive infighting since their recent election victory, and Indian politics are far more complicated and have far more parties and controversial disruptions in general, than the experience of Ko in Taipei. Finally, Ko’s election came as a part of a “green wave” of opposition victories throughout Taiwan, whereas Kejriwal and AAP have been a relatively Delhi-based phenomenon by comparison.
Given all the above dissimilarities between the circumstances surrounding Ko and Kejriwal’s elections, much can still be drawn from examining the two. Four main points are offered here:
- Clean and responsive governance is a high priority among citizens, and a candidate who presents a credible platform to advance it can make great strides.
- Money, legacy and campaign resource advantages thought insurmountable can be overcome by an outsider who captures the media narrative. This may be a particularly viable tactic in a political capital city.
- Voters are not always willing to simply vote for the lesser of two evils if a viable alternative is available. Complacent parties risk extinction.
- As the former American politician Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.” Broader, international-relations-based narratives about Asia can be trumped and disrupted by immediate quality-of-life concerns in key elections, and observers should take note.
Clean and responsive governance
The Jan Lokpal movement in India and Sunflower movement in Taiwan fit into the broader context of ordinary citizens throughout the globe wanting more transparency, accountability, and clarity about government operations. Occupy Wall Street in the US, and even Occupy Central in Hong Kong, the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine and the Arab Spring all reveal to some extent a growing discontent among citizens who feel left out of economic development and/or a disconnect between elites whose families have secure positions in government and business and those who do not. One key aspect of all these protests is that they were frustrated with the functioning of the political system itself, not just violations of law. In other words, proper application of unjust or monopolistic laws has seemed almost as much of a concern as under-the-table stealing.
A candidate who can credibly claim to be against or outside of this nexus of corporate-political corruption — or, if the process is technically legal but stacked in favor of powerful interests, one could more properly call it collusion — can genuinely rally people to his or her side. This lesson is arguably the key takeaway from the campaigns of Kejriwal and Ko.
It may seem obvious, but elections are often unpredictable, and outsiders can win if they ride the wave of citizen discontent and pick up media momentum. This is in some ways a cautionary warning for authoritarian states seeking to implement greater democratic freedom and lies at the heart of the debate in Hong Kong about whether the candidate selection process for the Chief Executive needs to include vetting by the Beijing-HK political and business establishment or whether the election might be fully opened up to all candidates.
Ko and Kejriwal-type candidacies are exactly what Beijing/Hong Kong and other regimes seeking stability and continuance of their rule hope to avoid, as they are in many ways uncontrollable. Since Ko’s election, for example, numerous large construction and business projects like the Taipei Dome that were approved under previous administrations have come under closer scrutiny and are being rolled back or investigated. And Kejriwal has been ceaseless in pushing for more accountability and open information on candidates in India, to the chagrin of more experienced politicians.
Money, legacy and resources are not enough
The KMT has so much more money than any other political entity in Taiwan it is astonishing. (Although their assets, dating back to when the party first arrived on the island and claimed by many to have been seized illegally, have come under increasing criticism, this is somewhat of a separate issue.) The DPP has a secure legacy as the leading political-party force in opposition dating back to the pre-democracy period. In India, the BJP has the backing of well-organized Hindu activist groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the Congress Party bears the imprimatur of having helped lead India into becoming an independent nation and governing the country for decades as well as being the home of the Gandhi family – Indira, Rajiv, and Sonia, and current heir apparent Rahul.
But the Congress’s problem has been similar to that of the KMT in Taiwan. Even with huge amounts of financial resources as well as long-entrenched networks that would seem to enhance political loyalty, if the party’s message does not resonate with ordinary people, the money ceases to become effective as a political tool. In India, I heard an ordinary citizen on the street say, “Finally, the poor people have learned to take money from the main parties and then just vote for whomever they want.”
In addition, sometimes political family legacies can become more of a burden than a blessing, either because it leads a party to choose lesser-qualified candidates just because of their name (Sean Lien, the Taipei mayoral candidate and son of KMT leader Lien Chan, and Rahul Gandhi himself have frequently been subject to this criticism), or because the political dynasty members either are or seem to be too closely affiliated with the political and business establishments at the expense of ordinary citizens. To show that resources are not only not enough but can even be counterproductive, Ko essentially garnered more praise and free press during his campaign by being relatively anti-money-in-politics than the KMT was able to buy in terms of advertising.
So while neither the “money is overrated” nor the “political dynasty status can be a curse, not a blessing” points seems to be true in the leadup to the exorbitantly-funded, possible Bush-Clinton US 2016 presidential election, in local elections around the globe, it is a possibility to consider. This is especially true if the upstart can use social media to shape a narrative, develop a credible campaign base, and build popularity among the political media in a capital city.
Two-party systems truly can be broken; “lesser of two evils” voting is not inevitable
This third point simply builds upon the previous two to state just how severe and rapid a political crisis can come to a party that is complacent. Out of seventy seats in the 2015 Delhi legislative assembly, the Congress Party won zero. And the BJP, which just one year earlier saw the transcendent rise of its Prime Minister Narendra Modi in national elections, won three. AAP won 67. And although the KMT still held relatively strong in some city council elections throughout Taiwan, a sea change has come over the island’s politics in that Ko and the opposition DPP seem to have completely flipped the script and narrative to one in which the KMT is in disgruntled opposition while pan-green, citizen-oriented politics take the lead.
This should serve as notice to entrenched interests that change can come abruptly, quickly, and brutally to parties whose brands grow stale. Consumer research has shown that in the era of online reviews and seemingly unlimited options, brand loyalty is of dramatically decreased importance, and it is said here from observing Ko and Kejriwal that political loyalty to parties can also burn out quickly.
“All politics is local”
Although long-time Indian political observers would likely recognize this truth as so patently obvious that it requires no explanation, those who are not intimately familiar with either the Indian or Taiwanese political scenes can become tempted to see politics through lenses such as “rise of Modi” signifying India “looking to a strongman model” or even to “balance against a rising China and with the US.” And foreign, especially American, observers often see Taiwanese conditions through a prism of preserving cross-strait stability and as part of a larger strategic dialogue with China for which Taiwan is just a small part and Taipei a secondary issue within that framework.
So the last point offered here, and this should apply to those watching Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, of course Taiwan and India, as well as any other developments within Asia, is that although there is certainly some truth to the IR-style narratives in explaining Asian politics (the most famous and comprehensive likely being John Mearsheimer’s), on-the-ground issues can be extraordinarily important as well. Local water supply, for example, was hugely important in Delhi, and Ko excelled at focusing on person-to-person campaigning and issues and tried as hard as possible to break the prior mold of partisan bickering and turning every election into a referendum on China policy. So those wishing to understand India and Taiwan, but also Asian elections in general, should watch the capital cities, as what takes hold there can easily spread throughout the country and beyond.
 See “Taiwan: Return of the Green Machine” in China: 2014 Year in Review at http://thediplomat.com/2015/01/china-2014-year-in-review/.
 See James Surowiecki, “Twilight of the Brands.” New Yorker. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/02/17/twilight-brands.
 “Can China Rise Peacefully?” In The National Interest, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/can-china-rise-peacefully-10204. He has also written about Taiwan specifically in the article “Say Goodbye to Taiwan,” also at The National Interest, http://nationalinterest.org/issue/march-april-2015.