At long last, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party walks out of Chen Shui-bian’s shadow

For Asia Sentinel

The headquarters of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, DPP, share a building with a farmers’ supermarket and a training center that teaches leadership skills. The tenants are diverse yet they commonly benefit of one advantage: In front of the building is nothing but a wide plot of idle urban land. To the Taiwanese this brings about good feng shui which guarantees the unobstructed flow of luck and energy so needed by anyone who competes.

The disgraceful end of Taiwan’s former president Chen Shui-bian’s career pushed the DPP in the deepest hole a political party could find itself in. Now, at long last, there are signs that there might be a way out. Supporters experience a sensation that has almost been forgotten: confidence in the party’s fate. More than 60% of the Taiwanese disapprove of President Ma Ying-jeou’s performance. That is a drastic drop for Ma who in 2008 has been elected to presidency with about the same percentage of votes. DPP chairwoman Tsai Ying-wen is widely respected by the DPP supporters and so is party heavyweight Su Tseng-chang who will run for Taipei mayor, a position considered to be a step stone to presidency. Earlier this year, the DPP has won three out of four recent county by-elections, and recently Tsai Ying-wen has done relatively well in Taiwan’s first televised debate between a president and an opposition leader. In a few months strategically important elections for five municipalities will be held. To the DPP’s leadership it is crystal clear: Only if the DPP wins these polls, the party has a chance to challenge the KMT in the 2012 presidential elections.

“We have to win, otherwise the DPP has no future”, says Hsieh Huai-hui, the DPP’s Deputy Director for International Affairs in a telephone interview.

“Right now we as a party have to focus on deciding about who will run as our candidates in the five municipality election race”, Ms. Hsieh explains.

The five municipalities will be formed by merging cities with their surrounding counties or, as it is the case with Taipei County, through the ‘upgrading’ of a county or city to a special municipality. The future leaders of those new municipalities will naturally become very important figures within their respective parties and also possible contenders for the 2012 presidential elections.

As it went with many opposition movements in history that eventually came into power, the DPP lost its innocence in the years it governed. The party’s founders took on the then ruling KMT government on two major issues: one-party authoritarian rule and chronic nepotism. Concerning the latter, the DPP failed bitterly. The party’s Chen Shui-bian who was Taiwan’s president from 2000 to 2008 received a life sentence on charges of taking bribes, money laundering and embezzlement in 2009. Many in the Taiwanese public as well as international observers initially claimed the trial to be a political vendetta staged by the KMT, yet due to overwhelming evidence against Chen and his family these voices have gradually become faint.

Since the KMT has been holding 71.7% of the legislature seats, the DPP effectively doesn’t have much ability to interfere with President Ma Ying-jeou’s government’s policy making.

According to Ms. Hsieh, the reason why the DPP seems to be able to walk out of Chen Shui-bians shadow is something the party itself deserves the credit for and not as it is often alleged is solely due to President Ma Ying-jeou’s poor standing. Hsieh says: “Many admire Chairwoman Tsai Ying-wen for her courage. She took on an enormous task reforming the party after the Chen Shui-bian fiasco.”

Apart from having a widely respected chairwoman, the DPP now seems more to cater to the opinion of Taiwan’s political center which does not wish to see a government that too aggressively snubs China. Ms. Hsieh’s tone describing the former archenemy clearly differs from that DPP politicians previously used. She says: “China is an immensely important country with which Taiwan has to build a good relationship with.”

However, according to independent analysts, the DPP solely relies on President Ma Ying-jeou’s political mistakes. Professor Yao Li-ming, a commentator often seen on Taiwan’s political talk shows, puts it this way: “The DPP doesn’t do anything. Corruption was what brought down the DPP, and neither Tsai nor Su has dared to clean up within the party. The only reason the Taiwanese start seeing the party in a better light is that they are disappointed with Ma Ying-jeou. ”

In the 2008 presidential elections, Ma Ying-jeou’s defeated DPP’s Frank Hsieh and Hsieh’s running mate Su Tseng-chang with 58% of the votes. However, to many Taiwanese, Ma Ying-jeou’s cabinet has since become arrogant through the all too comfortable majority. In the eyes of critics, the KMT government’s style shows signs of one-party rulership. Major decisions are being made behind close doors rather than through legislative or public consensus. This was apparent when in 2009 Ma’s cabinet announced the decision to reopen Taiwan to US beef imports without any prior public discussion. In 2008, the very same issue has almost brought down the Korean government.

Like the Korean government, Ma Ying-jeou has survived the outrage, but not without having paid a good deal of political capital.

Nonetheless, the KMT government resorted to the same ‘close door’ making of national policy when it began negotiating with China over an ‘Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, ECFA’ earlier this year. Seemingly not having thoroughly explained the content of an agreement that in the eyes of many will bring about great changes for Taiwan’s society is just another of Ma’s alleged blunders constantly picked up on by the Taiwanese media.

Any of Ma Ying-jeou’s advances towards mainland China still make emotions run high in parts of the Taiwanese public. According to Professor Yao, the calls for independence made by the former DPP government under Chen Shui-bian will not get the backing of the majority. However, it is obvious that groups that demand rapid unification with China will neither. In a survey conducted by the ‘Common Wealth Magazine’ only 2 percent of the respondents favored unification in the near future. Professor Yao estimates: “Regarding cross-straits relations, 70% of the Taiwanese don’t want to see anything more than cultural and economical exchanges for the time being.”

These figures leave the DPP leadership in the comfortable position of being able to focus on demonizing the ECFA-pact Ma Ying-jeou is going to sign with China in June, but not having to heed to the opinions of hardcore independence supporters within the DPP, since that would be likely turn off the majority of voters.

A development that could have the potential to put on the brakes on the DPP’s ambitions to seem as a united force to be reckoned with in the 2012 presidential elections is the sense of a beginning power struggle between Tsai Ying-wen and Su Tseng-cheng. In the municipality elections later this year, Chairwoman Tsai wants Su to run for Sinbei, which is to be the ‘upgraded’ Taipei County. Since Taipei County, as opposed to Taipei City, traditionally has a DPP-leaning electorate, Su would have good chances to win, which would mean that the DPP had three out of five municipalities because the party can take Kaohsiung and Tainan almost for granted. That would place Chairwoman Tsai in a strong position to contest Ma Ying-jeou in the presidential elections.

However, Su Tseng-chang openly snubbed the party leader by declaring his intention to run for Taipei City mayor. Since Taipei City is a KMT stronghold, his chances are slim, but if he wins, he would become the strongest figure in the DPP, since mayoralty in Taipei City rather than party chairmanship is seen as the step stone to presidency. Although Su promised to serve out the full term as the mayor of Sinbei, which would prevent him to become the DPP’s candidate in the 2012 race, many observers believe he, like Tsai, wants to become president. Even Hsieh Huai-hui of the DPP’s Department of International Affairs doubts Su’s vow to serve the full term in Sinbei. She admits: “I’m not so sure about his intentions.”

One can be certain that in the DPP’s headquarters there are more than enough considerations to be made that occupy the party strategists’ minds. And whereas the idle plot of land in front of the DPP favors good feng shui, there are five-storey buildings housing motorcycle shops across the road from the KMT headquarters. It is left to be seen if those motorcycle shops will block the KMT’s flow of luck and energy in the coming elections.

 

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