Taiwan's DPP Starts to Get Its Act Together

Although Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party is on the comeback trail, it is a long one that could be made bumpier by internal rivalries. The revival of its fortunes is owed to three main factors.

First, memories of the corruption which ended in the disgrace of former party leader and President Chen Shui-bian have faded. Current leader Tsai Ying-wen may lack charisma but is trusted and lacks enemies. Second, the party has switched off its pro-independence rhetoric which alienated many in the decisive middle ground of Taiwan politics who prefer an ambiguous status quo in relations with the mainland. Third and perhaps most important, is growing dissatisfaction with President Ma Ying-jeou.

The first signs of DPP revival have been reflected in wins in three of four recent county by-elections. Tsai Ying-wen did well in Taiwan's recent first televised debate with Ma, the first between a president and an opposition leader. Polls showed that to slightly more viewers Tsai (40.2 percent) was more convincing than Ma (39.9 percent).

The DPP owes part of its fortune, such as it is, to the fact that more than 60 percent of Taiwanese disapprove of Ma's performance despite his convincing win in the 2008 presidential elections with 58 percent of the vote and the return to power of the Kuomintang. If elections were to be held now, Ma would be expected to not even get half of the 7.6 million he pulled at that time. Much of that is due to Ma's handling of Typhoon Morakot, the deadliest typhoon in Taiwanese history last August. 461 people lost their lives and 192 others haven't been found. He traveled to areas where complete villages were wiped out but instead of comforting the survivors, he went before television cameras to blame them for refusing evacuation. This was hard to swallow for people who had lost their relatives a mere 48 hours earlier.

Since then, Ma has been perceived as arrogant and out of touch with the public. Other blunders followed such as the suddenly-announced decision to reopen Taiwan to US beef imports. Ma's cabinet did so without prior public discussion. To many Taiwanese it manifested their opinion that Ma's hallmark style is policymaking behind closed doors. And when earlier this year negotiations began with China over an ‘Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement,' now expected to be signed in June, Ma resorted to the same style of governing: the content of the talks wasn't clearly explained. Taiwan's middle and lower classes particularly see the trade pact as a personal deal between the KMT's and the Chinese Communist Party's bigwigs.

The DPP does face an incipient power struggle between its leaders, Chairwoman Tsai and party heavyweight Su Tseng-chang. Both would like to be president. Tsai is urging Su to run for governor of Sinbei, the newly upgraded Taipei County, which he appears to have a good chance to win. That would give the DPP the leadership of three of the five special municipalities, Kaohsiung, Tainan and Sinbei and Tsai would run for president. Su, however, wants to run for the mayoralty of Taipei City instead. While his chances are considered to be slim, if he were to win, he would be much stronger than Tsai and effectively an uber DPP figure who would be more likely than Tsai to run for president.

In a few months strategically important elections for five municipalities will be held. To the DPP's leadership it is crystal clear: the outcome of these polls will make or break the party. Hsieh Huai-hui, the DPP's Deputy Director for International Affairs, told Asia Sentinel. "Many party members see the by-elections won earlier this year as a turning point, but I think we have to be very, very cautious in our assessments."

Five new municipalities are to be formed by merging Taiwan's major cities with their surrounding counties. The future leaders of those new municipalities will become very important figures within their respective parties and also possible contenders for the 2012 presidential elections.

"Right now the by far most important issue is the decision about who will run as our candidates in the five-municipality election race," Mrs. Hsieh said.

The newfound confidence doesn't mean the DPP has come roaring back. There is a long way to go to recover from the disastrous 2008 legislative elections, which gave the KMT 71.7 percent of the seats in the legislature. Independent analysts believe that if elections were held now, the DPP would make it to 25-30 percent. That means the DPP effectively has been kept out of the decision-making process on the national level.

"There is only one reason that the public has started seeing the DPP in a more favorable light and that is Ma Ying-jeou's poor performance," Professor Yao Li-ming, one of Taiwan's most sought-after commentators for political TV shows, said in an interview: "Apart from that ‘10-year policy plan' Chairwoman Tsai Ying-wen has recently come up with, the DPP doesn't do much."

The DPP plan mentioned by Yao deals with Taiwan's ageing population, future ecological disasters, economic development and Taiwan's place in a "changing international situation."

Although Mrs. Tsai can't possibly be called charismatic, Yao says, "It's important to understand that she simply doesn't have enemies, not even in the KMT. She has risen within the DPP without having had many supporters. When two years ago the party desperately needed a new chairman after the Chen Shui-bian fiasco, Tsai Ying-wen was simply the only figure who was willing to take on that job."

Yao even goes so far as to see parallels to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's rise. Mrs. Merkel also filled a leadership vacuum after her predecessor left in disgrace.

Su Tseng-chang's chances to become Taiwan's next president are even slimmer. Su will run for the mayoralty in Taipei, the very stronghold of the KMT. "Even if Ma Ying-jeou's approval ratings drop into the cellar, the DPP can't take a victory in Taipei for granted," Yao says. "Su is unlikely to win Taipei, but even if he would, he has to win big. Otherwise there's no way he could become president."