Written by J. Michael Cole.
Given the way Taiwan’s main opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is handling the lead-up to the all-important seven-in-one municipal elections in November, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is doing its very best not to win. Shortsighted goals, selfish attitudes, and aging politicians who refuse to make way for future generations of leaders help explain why.
At this point, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), whose poor governing performance since 2012 should make it vulnerable to a landslide, won’t even need to field formidable candidates to keep its grip on the nation’s key municipalities.
Time and again in recent years, supporters of the pro-DPP green camp have blamed their electoral defeats on “vote buying,” the KMT’s wealth advantage, or “brainwashed” citizens who don’t know what’s best for them. While the first two variables often play a role in elections here, another factor has also made it difficult for the DPP to change the political landscape: its inability — and sometimes unwillingness — to field candidates who can appeal to both sides of the political spectrum and to various segment of society.
How else can we explain the candidacies of former vice president Annette Lu, aged 69, in Taipei and former premier Yu Shyi-kun, aged 65, in New Taipei City (Xinbei) on the DPP ticket (Yu’s is already confirmed, while Lu is vying for the honor)? Now that isn’t to say that people of a certain age aren’t fit to govern two of Taiwan’s largest municipalities, nor to deny the contributions that those individuals have made to Taiwan over the years. However, there is a problem when such politicians, and the party leadership behind them, continually prevent the emergence of alternatives and new talent, and decide to run when it is evident that their chances of winning against KMT candidates in what are traditionally “blue,” or KMT, constituencies, are slim to nonexistent.
The selfishness of politicians whose time has passed can only continue to hurt the DPP and the nation as a whole if party leaders — in the present instance DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang, aged 66 — countenance such behavior, or fail to counter the conservative forces within the party that oppose rejuvenation. Yes, the KMT also has its share of dinosaurs, but they have far greater resources to compensate for that.
Some observers could argue that the DPP has simply given up on Taipei and Xinbei and intends to focus its efforts on other municipalities where it has a better chance of winning. But with a total population of approximately 6.6 million people — 4 million in Xinbei and 2.6 in Taipei — the two special municipalities are simply too important symbolically for the DPP to surrender. So the DPP presumably wants a fight, but internal dynamics are such that its pugilists are long past retirement age. The chances that Yu would prevail against likely KMT candidates Eric Chu (currently mayor), Hou You-yi (Chu’s deputy) or Lee Hong-yuan (Minister of the Interior) are about as high as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) allowing Western-style democracy to flourish across China.
There are, of course, alternatives. In Taipei, for example, Ko Wen-je, a 54-year-old attending physician at National Taiwan University and head of its department of traumatology, has unexpectedly emerged as a viable candidate, though one who is likely to run as an independent. Despite his awkwardness and lack of any political experience — or perhaps because of those — Ko has quickly turned into the only candidate who has a shot at defeating the KMT’s likely contender, the 44-year-old Sean Lien, the son of former vice president and KMT chairman Lien Chan (the elder Lien is a multimillionaire and very close to Beijing). Ko has advocated positions that stand a chance of appealing to “light blue” or swing voters, while proposing to form an opposition alliance to unseat the KMT.
Given this, the rational choice for the DPP (assuming it has the nation’s best interests at heart) would be to support Ko or to seek ways to work with him. Instead, the party and Lu supporters have gone on the offensive by highlighting the fact that Ko, a non-party member, is an outsider. Beyond open letters by Lu attacking Ko, some of her supporters — including people who are very close to her — have published op-eds, irresponsibly published by the pro-Su Taipei Times (full disclosure: the author worked there from 2006-2013), in which they go out of their way to raise questions about Ko’s allegiance, hinting that he may have struck a deal with the CCP to ensure his victory. In addition to providing no evidence whatsoever to substantiate their claims, the articles are formulated in a way that forces Ko to prove a negative, while raising sufficient doubt to undermine his reputation. In a country that is as prone as the Middle East to swallowing conspiracy theories, this could very well be sufficient to ruin his chances in Taipei. As if this wasn’t enough, the authors also engage in guilt by association by alleging a secret alliance between Ko and former DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen, aged 57, who represents hands down the greatest challenge to Su and other contenders to the party leadership, including former premier Frank Hsieh, aged 67. Lu has already shown her willingness to make damaging allegations against Tsai.
By trying to sabotage Ko’s campaign for the selfish interests of a candidate who doesn’t stand a chance against Lien, the Lu camp is making sure that the KMT will keep its hold on Taipei. For them, such an outcome would somehow be less nefarious than to be replaced by a younger, more appealing alternative within the green camp whose victory would surely dovetail with the purported aims of the party, such as democracy and the ability of Taiwan to retain its de facto sovereignty. Perhaps Ko’s success would be too stark a reminder that the time has come for Lu and those of her generation to make room for new voices. Again, let me emphasize that age isn’t in and of itself a determinant for one’s suitability to run for office. But openness of mind and adaptability to changing times are.
The leadership of the DPP has lost sight of the “progressive” component of the party’s name, and its leadership seems content with its role as an opposition party, hence the pressures against the emergence of rejuvenating candidates. For example, the DPP would have a good chance of winning in Miaoli County, where County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung of the KMT has so utterly mismanaged a series of crises that his very name is now a noxious commodity. But instead of cultivating a solid candidate, the DPP has already given up, claiming that Miaoli was, and always will be, KMT territory. As a result, residents will continue to be abused, and when they cry foul their critics will once again counter that they deserve their fate as they voted for the KMT. If the current DPP leadership had any vision, it would seek to break the KMT’s hold on Miaoli and exploit its success for propaganda purposes ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
As a status quo entity that looks to the past rather than to the future, the DPP is failing to spark the imagination of younger generations of Taiwanese, so much so that many of them have admitted they would rather not vote than cast their ballots in major elections, a truly appalling prospect that should alarm the DPP leadership, given the large proportion of young people who are naturally be inclined to vote green.
J Michael Cole is a Washington DC and Taipei-based analyst and writer. His personal blog is here and he tweets @jmichaelcole1. Michael is a CPI blog Regular Contributor and Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the China Policy Institute.