Just when it looked as if the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) fortunes were beginning to turn the corner, the party once again finds itself in the middle of a full-blown crisis. And, yet again, it is one entirely of its own making.
The source of the trouble this time is one place that is usually not cause for concern for the party: Tainan County.
On Wednesday, the party named Legislator Lee Chun-yee (李俊毅) as its candidate for December’s county commissioner election. But in doing so, it ignored former minister of foreign affairs and two-time former county commissioner Mark Chen (陳唐山), despite numerous polls showing higher support ratings for Chen.
In going against public opinion, DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) says the party has opted for a generational change. At the same time, however, Tsai is trying to stamp her authority on the party and make a clean break with the past.
Factional considerations may also have played a role. Although the party supposedly abolished its factions in 2006, Mark Chen is close to — and the preferred choice of — former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
Tsai is taking a risk. A split pan-green vote would open the door for a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) victory in a place the DPP has controlled for the last 16 years. Nor is Tainan a place the DPP can afford to lose, given the challenges it faces in other parts of the country.
Pan-green incumbents in the south are already under pressure because of the central government’s uneven distribution of development funds — which has left DPP-controlled authorities with the short end of the stick — and an apparent boycott of pan-green counties and cities by Chinese tourists.
Meanwhile, the questionable legal proceedings against Chiayi County Commissioner Chen Ming-wen (陳明文) and Yunlin County Commissioner Su Chih-fen (蘇治芬) will test the pair’s ability to win re-election.
Add to that the trial involving the former first family and the damage this has done to the party’s reputation — ammunition already used by KMT Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) ahead of the Da-an by-election — and the DPP may struggle to keep pan-green counties and cities, let alone woo pan-blue ones.
Nevertheless, the DPP must have been encouraged by last week’s showing in Da-an and the electorate’s apparent discontent with the KMT administration. It may be looking ahead to December’s elections with a new sense of optimism.
But Mark Chen’s challenge could bring that to an end.
At 74, he may still be popular, but he should also have the wisdom to acknowledge that what the party needs now is unity.
Tsai’s low-key stewardship since taking the helm last May has been a breath of fresh air compared with the tumult in the party’s recent past. But in December, she will need to show that her leadership produces results.
Mark Chen, meanwhile, must recognize that by undermining Tsai’s leadership at this crucial moment, he would not only harm Tsai, but also the party and its cause, which should be far more important than any individual.