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Good times for Taiwan opposition - almost

Publication Date : 21-04-2014


The stars seem aligned for Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The economy remains sluggish. President Ma Ying-jeou is one of Taiwan's most unpopular leaders in recent history. Warming cross-strait ties - the showpiece of his administration - have hit a bump with the recent Sunflower movement.

So, the pro-independence DPP seems poised to sweep the local polls this November. And while the next presidential election is still two years away, the prevailing belief is that if it plays its cards right, Taiwan's next president would be the 57-year-old Ms Tsai Ing-wen from the party.

The latest poll from Taiwan Indicators Survey Research indicates that more people - 33.3 per cent - back the DPP, with 27.2 per cent plumping for the ruling Kuomintang (KMT).

Yet, the DPP's elevated position is due more to a public weary of Ma and the KMT, rather than through any persuasive achievements of its own.

It faces a myriad of challenges, from factional infighting to lingering doubt about its ability to handle cross-strait ties - issues that need to be resolved quickly ahead of the electoral battles to come, say analysts and its own party insiders.

Last week, one hurdle was partially cleared when two contenders for the party chairmanship - incumbent Su Tseng-chang and former chairman Frank Hsieh - stepped aside citing party unity, leaving the top spot for the most popular candidate, Tsai. Immediately, Tsai stressed that party reform must be undertaken.

Interviews indicate that the DPP has to walk a tightrope in effecting change in two key areas that seem contradictory in their directions. Even as it reaches out to Taiwan's mainstream by moderating its stance on cross-strait ties, it needs also to step up its game to remain relevant to core supporters wary of closer ties with China. It has been criticised for abdicating the latter role and leaving it to the students who successfully led the Sunflower movement to stymie a service trade pact with China.

An internal review of the party's China policy remains under way, says Dr Joseph Wu, its policy research head. It is likely an arduous process. Despite "soul-searching" since the last presidential poll in 2012 that Tsai lost to Ma, the DPP remains split between those who propose a more China-friendly stance such as by putting on hold the party's independence clause "as a goodwill gesture" and those who feel it unnecessary, he says.

What is key, he says, is for the party to "give the public a sense that DPP can handle cross-strait relations if it's in power".

The DPP takes the position that Taiwan is "a sovereign country separate from China" - which Beijing rejects. Meanwhile, the majority of Taiwanese favour the status quo of de facto independence but are leery of any sudden moves that could jeopardise its stability or economic links with China.

A survey the party conducted in March found the KMT outstrips the DPP in support on this front, with more respondents unhappy with DPP's stance of "opposing everything related to China".

Any failure by the DPP to moderate this, warns Hsieh, could result in another election loss. A reason for Tsai's 2012 loss was the perception that the party's China policy then could not be trusted. "For some (in the party), they are unable to change their thinking - it's a religion. Maybe they will change only if we lose again. It's a pity and I hope we won't have to pay such a high price."

The former premier leads a faction that advocates greater engagement with China and has proposed a "two Constitutions, different interpretations" framework as a compromise.

But the proposal has failed to gain enough traction within the party.

Tsai, whose office declined an interview request, has not publicly said if she agrees with such a direction. But political academic Tung Chen-yuan says while she has hitherto been vague, now that her position in the DPP appears locked in, she will "have more leeway against pro-independence hardliners".

Says Dr Tung: "The party's 130,000 members are more conservative. But 2016 is a national competition and therefore she will need to be more moderate."

Such efforts are being balanced with work on another front - to respond to issues that arose from the Sunflower movement, including calls for constitutional reforms.

Its organisers and supporters have blamed Taiwan's constitutional framework - a mix of presidential and Westminster systems - for concentrating power in the executive branch and not adequately reflecting public opinion.

"Taiwan's set-up is full of fallacies, and a highly unpopular president can get an unpopular policy passed," says Dr Wu, who is heading a new taskforce reviewing the topic. "So the system seems unable to cope with the gridlock, resulting in the recent constitutional crisis. If we don't change, there will be recurring similar crises."


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