Taiwan Heads for Election Season

China’s roiling the waters with its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas can be expected to make Taiwan’s January elections all the more important for the region. Given its location between the two seas, Taiwan will need a leader capable of balancing many demands.

It was the Kuomintang, under Chiang Kai-shek, that ironically came up with an original eleven-dash line, which China has changed to a nine-dash line and is using to claim almost the entire South China Sea. Since Taiwan, as the Republic of China, officially adheres to Beijing's claim, the next president will need to be adroit at statesmanship.

In addition to protecting Taiwan while continuing trade with China, this new president must also be able to contribute to maintaining regional stability and freedom of the Taiwan Strait. These January elections will clearly set the tone for Taiwan’s pivotal role in maintaining regional peace.

Yet, despite their importance, a scant seven months away, the contrast between Taiwan’s two major political parties in their preparation is stark, with the Kuomintang, long the island’s dominant political party, seemingly paralyzed.

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has already selected Tsai Ing-wen as its candidate and is developing an appropriate campaign strategy. More positively, Su Tseng-chang, a prominent party member and Tsai’s past rival, has agreed to be her campaign manager, helping to unify the party.

Tsai is not standing still. Two crucial steps are on the immediate horizon. First, at the end of May she will go to the United States to visit six cities in 12 days. This trip will be to both drum up support among the overseas Taiwanese community and to meet with US government officials in Washington DC. There, in DC on June 3 she will also give a televised speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

This trip is of special relevance for the DPP since its members are conscious of the weak reception Tsai got back in 2012. At the same time Washington has some catching up of its own to do.

The second major step in Tsai’s campaign will be to choose her running mate. That decision, however, will have to wait until July when the DPP sees who Tsai will be running against from the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Thus while Tsai is building bridges and mending fences for her party, the KMT in contrast seems to be in a state of lethargic disarray.

The KMT has held its initial primary but only two candidates registered, namely Hung Hsiu-chu, the deputy speaker of the legislature, and Yaung Chih-liang, the former minister of health, neither of which is likely to be the ultimate standard-bearer.

The next step in the KMT process has been for each candidate to gather at least 15,000 signatures from party members in support of his/her candidacy. Former minister Yaung Chih-liang failed to pass the signature threshold, leaving Hung as the sole remaining candidate. But it doesn’t end there.

Hung must next get the polled support of 30 percent of the KMT membership. In that vote, party members will evaluate whether they think Hung can beat Tsai. If she doesn’t get the required 30 percent approval, then the party can draft a suitable candidate.

This process is lengthy and it also gives the impression that its mechanisms can be used undemocratically to deny candidates that party power brokers do not want or like. That may explain why the other more likely candidates have refrained from initially casting their hat into the ring.

So who from the KMT didn’t apply but might accept being drafted? Wang Jin-pyng, the speaker of the house in the Legislative Yuan, kept everyone waiting for his decision until the last day when applications were accepted. Many in the party like Wang, but others do not trust him as the standard bearer. He is friendly with too many on both sides of the aisle.

Hau Lung-bin, mayor of Taipei for eight years has different baggage. His father, Hau Pei-tsun has perhaps too cozy ties with Beijing. He recently attended the opening of the Beijing museum dedicated to WWII resistance to Japan. The son, Hau’s lackluster performance in his eight years as mayor is also a drawback.

Wu Den-yih, the current vice president also has baggage; he lost the last time he ran for mayor of Kaohsiung. Certain factions are amenable to him, but not enough to promise a hope of being elected.

All KMT candidates have made a point of distancing themselves from the lame duck KMT president Ma Ying-jeou, whose ratings have continued low and who risks possible indictment at the end of his term as president. Hau, Wu, and Wang may hope to be drafted but peace must made between the different factions of the party.

Time ticks on. Hung presently stands out as the only registered KMT candidate; and she has asked the party to give her at least 9 or 10 sessions to explain her policy positions before the June 13 polling date.

Hung’s selection would certainly make an interesting and unprecedented race. Taiwan could be the first democracy to have two women competing for the presidency at the same time, but yet while this has appeal, there appears little chance of it happening in reality.

The KMT has one more eligible candidate, Eric Chu, the party chairman and current mayor of Sinbei City. Hung had initially stated that she would not mind seeing Eric Chu drafted, though as chairman of the party Chu has repeatedly said that he would not run. Nonetheless the question remains, what might he do if he were drafted? Such a challenging decision (unless it has already been made behind closed doors) would come in mid-July. That would only leave the KMT six months remaining in this crucial race.

This is the complexity facing the KMT and all Taiwanese. On one side, the DPP already has its candidate Tsai, who is currently favored to win the election. On the other side, the KMT has a candidate, but the unspoken mood is that the party will be reluctant to approve her and will resort to drafting a man.

In addition to this, there will still be the struggle for majority control of the Legislative Yuan, a control that the KMT has always had but could lose in this election. Taiwan watchers in the region will not be idle in the coming months.

Jerome F. Keating is an educator, trainer, consultant and writer who currently lives in Taipei.