By: Jerome F. Keating

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.