Following the gains the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) made in the local government elections on Saturday, the popularity of DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has increased alongside the power she wields within the party. The results of a survey announced yesterday showed that her approval rate is now 43 percent, up from 27 percent in May, while that of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has slipped from 52 percent in May to 33 percent.
Though some interpreted Saturday’s elections as a “mid-term” exam for Ma and a gauge of the DPP’s chances in the legislative and presidential elections in 2012, the results are not, on their own, sufficiently positive to represent a shift in the fortunes of the green camp.
In fact, given the many blunders committed by the Ma administration since it came to office in May last year — from its mishandling of Typhoon Morakot to its disregard for opposing voices on its cross-strait policies — Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidates did surprisingly well in distancing themselves from the increasingly toxic central government, demonstrating yet again that politics are, above all, local.
In a way, if we look at Saturday’s elections as a referendum on the KMT in general and Ma in particular, we could argue that the party passed, while Ma came close to flunking. This shows us that voters are capable of distinguishing one from the other and that Ma’s misfortunes will not inevitably drag the KMT down. As more than two years separate us from the critical elections, the KMT will have sufficient time to rebuild its image and perhaps rid itself of members who risk undermining its chances of remaining in power. This could even mean nixing a Ma candidacy.
Still, the DPP has been handed an opportunity to regain momentum and to rebuild itself after years of decline. A main component to that effort will be rebranding the party as one that is more middle-of-the-road than that which, in the public eye, had grown increasingly nationalistic and exclusionary during former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) second term. This, above all, will require efforts to convince the public, investors, the business sector and the international community that it is not anti-business or, as some media continue to characterize the DPP, “anti China.”
What it must make its detractors realize is that despite its pro-independence platform, the DPP does not advocate policies that pretend that China does not exist, nor does it seek to fuel animosities in the Taiwan Strait. It is ossible to be pro-independence and to seek closer, friendlier relations with Beijing, which, for the most part, is what the DPP tried to achieve while in office. The perception of the DPP as a “radical” and “anti-China” party may be unfair, the result of a smear campaign by Beijing, the KMT and pan-blue media, but as long as that image endures, the DPP’s chances of winning enough people to its side — and this means light-blues — to stage a comeback in 2012 will be slim.
Tsai has reached a point where people are more likely to listen to her. Now’s the time for her to engage in public diplomacy to dispel the myths that have long haunted her party and to rid it of those who risk undermining its image as a responsible alternative to the KMT.
Loud and clear, she must state that the DPP is not “anti” anything — above all China — but rather that it stands “for” many things.