Taiwan's DPP may be squandering its political capital on infighting

Taiwan's DPP may be squandering its political capital on infighting
Ms Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of Taiwan's main opposition Democratic Progressive Party.
PHOTO: AFP

As Rahm Emanuel, US President Barack Obama's former chief of staff famously said: "You never let a serious crisis go to waste ... it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before."

The Kuomintang (KMT) has a serious crisis at hand and it is showing signs of making use of the opportunity it provides.

The ruling party is facing its most serious crisis in recent decades.

Its defeat in the 2000 presidential election to the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) Chen Shui-bian was a watershed moment, but Chen's victory was due mainly to division in the KMT camp.

The DPP has never been able to take the majority in the Legislative Yuan, including during the eight years of Chen's presidency.

President Ma Ying-jeou's chronically low approval ratings and the KMT's dismal showing in the 2014 local government elections, meanwhile, seem to have pointed to a transitional change in Taiwanese politics.

Change is already in the air. In an extraordinary turn of events, the ruling party is running like a challenger for the 2016 presidential race while the DPP is giving off an air of invincibility.

The KMT is rallying behind the wildcard Hung Hsiu-chu as its presumptive candidate after the "party heavyweights" held out in the primary.

The party is taking a page out of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je's campaign book, letting Hung - known as "Little Hot Pepper" for her fiery style - loose with her straight-shooting comments.

At one point, KMT lawmakers even praised Hung for her self-confessed "tone-deafness" months after the party criticised Ko for his similarly "tone-deaf" outspokenness.

Some in the party are recognising that Hung's current popularity might not be merely the result of public curiosity, but rather that Hung's unorthodox campaign style might be more attractive to an often anti-establishment public than the traditional KMT strategy.

The DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen, on the other hand, seems to be running a re-election campaign.

In her recent comments, her trip to the US and her high-profile interview with Time Magazine, she focused mainly on outlining her plans as the future president.

She went as far as asking the Time journalist to "tell them you were served by the next president of Taiwan" after serving breakfast at her home.

Tsai's projection of confidence is no doubt a calculated decision. An air of invincibility can be useful for a candidate to maintain momentum.

By addressing policy issues instead of engaging in smear campaigning, Tsai also uses her current strength in terms of public support to force her opponent to make the ugly moves.

Playing the title defender, however, has its risks. Tsai is already facing infighting with a pan-green camp focused on dividing presumptive spoils.

She was slammed by former DPP leader Lin Yi-hsiung, a godlike figure in the party, for failing to withdraw DPP candidates and make space for independent candidates in several districts in the 2016 lawmaker election.

At the same time, she was also criticised by Taipei City Councilor Kao Chia-yu, one of DPP's most popular young politicians, precisely for failing to put DPP lawmaker candidates in some districts in what Kao suggested was a "secret pact" with James Soong's People First Party.

It has yet to be seen whether Hung's popularity can face the test of time, and even if it does the DPP will still enjoy an advantage in the 2016 election.

The KMT, however, should not regard Hung's rise merely in terms of the election.

The 2016 election campaign is for the KMT a chance to reform, something every KMT leader has paid lip service to.

An energising and unorthodox candidate like Hung can help the party move forward from its centennial stiffness and regain a fighting spirit.

The DPP, meanwhile, should not be blinded by its current advantage.

Public support often goes as soon as it comes.

The opposition party will have regrets if it fails to make good use of it and squanders its political capital on infighting and arguments over spoils.

After all, those are two of the things that earned the KMT its public discontent.

 

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