Taiwan's Tsai ends the waiting

For Asia Times Online www.http://atimes.com
By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI – At long last Taiwan’s opposition leader, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, did what the entire country had expected her to: announce she will run for president in 2012. Only the media exposure she and her team hoped for failed to materialize as Japan’s nuclear disaster left no space for domestic politics.

Staying coy until the very last moment is a textbook strategy by a prospective candidate to keep the media’s attention. But being indefinite on her ambition to become the 24th President of the Republic of China was not child’s play for Tsai. This is because no sensible Taiwanese political commentator would have doubted that the 54-year old professor of law, former vice premier and former chairperson of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) would be running. It hasn’t been a secret that Tsai spent the previous weeks with shoring up support from DPP heavyweights behind the

scenes, hiring and firing office staff and painstakingly preparing invitations for the announcement ceremony.

The DPP leader, who has the charisma of a humble and quintessentially sound academic, will become a formidable challenger to the ruling Kuomintang’s (KMT) President Ma Ying-jeou. Unlike Ma, and even much less so his predecessor Chen Shui-bian, Tsai does not polarize. It’s this feature that makes Tsai, who has been heading the DPP since 2008, a strikingly plausible choice to Taiwan’s important swing voters. In an opinion poll on next year’s presidential election published by KMT-leaning media shortly after her announcement, DPP Chairwoman Tsai led President Ma by 1 percentage point.

Between Tsai’s announcement and 2012 may lie party primaries to be conducted by national telephone polls. Although Tsai was late last year defeated in her bid to run for mayor in New Taipei City, two out of her three possible contenders should be no match for the party chairwoman. There’s Frank Hsieh, former premier and defeated DPP nominee in the 2008 presidential election and Annette Lu, former vice president under Chen Shui-bian. So far, of the two, only Lu made public her intention to run in 2012.

Few doubt that the only figure that could possibly thwart Tsai’s bid is Su Tseng-chang. Su announced his bid for presidency on March 20, apparently having waited until the sudden, media-domineering developments in Japan had somewhat ebbed away. Su is a former premier and defeated nominee for the vice presidency in 2008, he also lost in last November’s elections when running for Taipei Mayor. Nonetheless, the politician – who is referred to as ”e-ball” among his supporters in reference to his balding forehead – has a sizable supporter base, and in opinion polls, he’s notoriously all but on par with Tsai.

According to Taiwanese experts, having been shoved out of the news headlines will not be too damaging to the DPP chairwoman’s quest to win the party primaries.

”As Tsai’s running is not a surprise, the effect of the nuclear disaster in Japan won’t be significant”, says Huang Hua-hsi, a legislative assistant in an interview with Asia Times Online. ”Important is the follow-up competition within the party and in particular the question how Tsai and Su will interact.”

Leonard Chu, professor at the Department of Journalism of Taipei’s National Chengchi University, reckons that disasters edging out the news on electoral candidates is something politician have to live with.

”That is something no one could have predicted. The Japan disaster news also has displaced media the spotlight on Jason Wu, Mayor of Taichung. Some politicians gain and others lose. This is always the case”, he says.

Mayor Wu, Chu refers to, came seriously under pressure after a bar packed with ravelers went up in flames, revealing gross sloppiness in Taichung’s town clerk’s office.

According to Tsai Chia-hung of the Election Study Center at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, the DPP Chairwoman could make the best of the unhoped-for absence of media coverage.

”Although the media spotlight is not on Dr Tsai these days, she still visits some places”, he weighs in. ”Less media coverage could perhaps give her more time organizing her agenda and adding something about energy policy to it, given that despite the nuclear crisis in Japan, the KMT still insists on going ahead with the construction of a new nuclear plant.”

Bonnie Peng, media expert and Taiwan’s former minister of the National Communications Commission (NCC), brushes off the possibility that a spoiled campaign start could harm Tsai. ”It’s too early to think about the presidential election at the moment”, says Peng, who served as a minister in Ma’s cabinet until August 2010.
Though Tsai’s and Su’s ratings in opinion polls are not so far apart, and despite Tsai’s slightly less-than-ideal timing, the odds seem to be on her side. One of the reasons for this is that her ideas on how to handle the DPP’s traditionally very difficult relations with Beijing are much more convincing than those of her three possible contenders.

Whereas Hsieh, Lu and Su stepped forward with proposals that they had christened in ways ordinary Taiwanese can only find cryptic, namely a ”Constitutional Consensus”, ”1996 Consensus” and ”Taiwan Consensus”, Tsai has resorted to playing on Confucius’ verses, twisting them smartly so as to convey her message. The he er bu tong he er qiu tong she used to describe her cross-strait approach makes sense to the Taiwanese. This is because virtually all inhabitants of the island, regardless political affiliation, economic class or ancestral background hold the Chinese thinker in high regard. The meaning of Tsai’s modified version of the ancient catch-phrase roughly translates into ”co-existence with differences, and seeking to narrow down differences in co-existence”. It can safely be assumed that the Tsai’s phrase identifies the way the majority of the Taiwanese wishes to see cross-strait relations developing.

Cementing the impression that she will take smooth relations with the former arch-enemy and by now far biggest trading partner very seriously, Tsai introduced two new think tanks which purpose it is to strengthen dialogue with Beijing. Just one day later, her most bitter opponent within the DPP, Annette Lu, also launched a think tank, but hardly anyone would believe Lu’s China Study Center would make for a good circuit to the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

Also, there could be desirous calculi coming to Tsai’s help, causing proponents of Taiwanese independence within the DPP to switch their support from Su to Tsai. With the presidential election still many months ahead, a number of DPP politicians, especially in the South, still present themselves as idealistically pro-independence and therefore rather pro-Lu and pro-Su, but with party primaries drawing nearer, they could well be tempted turning to Tsai as the candidate who is likelier to become president. By positioning themselves near the prospective winner figure in a timely manner, they increase their chances to gorge on hefty government allowances, benefits and salaries of office once Tsai has been elected and invites them to join her administration.

And, years later when it will be time to leave office, they can still seek shelter in one of Tsai’s think tanks. This is because the newly founded Economic and Social Affairs Research Center and the Security and Strategy Research Center will just as the KMT’s National Policy Foundation double-function as an institution for absorbing government personnel who had to step down. Without having had the chance getting a foot in a reasonably lucrative position in a party-affiliated think tank, DPP officials who left office were in the past much more likely to face unemployment than their KMT peers.

In legislative assistant Huang’s eyes, however, the most prominent indicator that it will be Tsai Ing-wen rather than Su Tseng-chang winning the race is the results of the November elections. Su lost by a 12% margin to KMT candidate Hau Lung-pin whereas Tsai only trailed the KMT’s Eric Chu by about 5%.

”Su lost big, Tsai lost small; we can take this as a hint”, Huang says. ”But I wouldn’t comment on the possibility that Su’s supporters will eventually switch to Tsai, because no research has been made in this regard.”

Chen Yaw-shyang, an assistant professor of public policy at National Taipei University, brings into account that if in the end, against all odds, Tsai loses, and either Su Tseng-chang, Annette Lu or Frank Hsieh will emerge as the DPP’s candidate to challenge Ma Ying-jeou 2012, it wasn’t due to her campaign start having been overshadowed by the Japanese nuclear disaster.

”Tsai Ing-wen’s media exposure has always been sufficient enough, and the earliest stage of a campaign isn’t too important anyway.”

 

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