It’s been a little more than a week since the special municipality elections were held, the results of which largely preserved the status quo: The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) retained control of the north with three mayoral seats, while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) held onto the two in the south, its traditional power base. In city councilor races, the two parties tied at 130 seats each. The DPP did secure the overall popular vote, however, with a 5 percent majority.
No sooner were the results known than the old guard began calling for DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) head. Dismissing the popular vote as immaterial, former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) questioned Tsai’s ability to lead the party in the 2012 presidential election. Others have blamed her for the “poor” showing and called for her to resign. Die-hard independence activist Koo Kwang-ming (辜寬敏), 84, even floated the idea that he might run in 2012.
A political group associated with former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) said they too might field a separate presidential candidate in 2012. Equally independence minded, the “one side, one country alliance” includes Chen’s son, Chen Chih-chung (陳致中), who was elected a Greater Kaohsiung city councilor. Thirty alliance members won council seats, threatening to split DPP support should the younger Chen become more ambitious during the next two years.
Perhaps the DPP should reflect upon the losses it was able to inflict upon the KMT in 2000 because of the factionalism that rent that party.
This is a perilous time for the DPP as it wavers between its traditional resolute nationalism and a more pragmatic, conciliatory approach to cross-strait relations. Happily, DDP legislators and party bosses have been quick to rally behind Tsai, noting that although the party failed to win any of the northern races, two of these were very close, including Tsai’s own, and the swing in popular vote represents a remarkable comeback from the 2008 polls when the party was so soundly thrashed that some wondered if it would survive.
Views from abroad also seem to recognize the DPP’s achievement. Beijing has been noticeably reticent about the shift in popular support, saying only that it had “paid attention” and it hoped to continue advancing cross-strait ties in a steady manner. In Washington, a US expert on Taiwan urged Washington to establish new links with the DPP and prepare for its possible return to power.
This is not to overstate the point. What is clear is that there is far more to be gained by appealing to the large, growing and, for the most part, unaligned center of Taiwanese politics rather than its radical fringe, even if that fringe was once the DPP core.
However, the KMT will also be vying for the center and they will not have to convince independent voters of their sincerity to pursue and ability to deliver solutions in cross-strait issues. The DPP will have to fight for credibility with an opponent that is experienced, resourceful and has a head start.
So, what’s next for the DPP? To lose in a close race can have certain advantages; one being that without the task of governing, party strategists have a good idea of how to develop policies that will give the party the edge in the next elections and the time to develop their programs.
To get this edge, the DPP must convince independent voters of its ability to make progress in cross-strait relations. This means more than signing trade pacts, as the KMT has done. Strong leadership is required to resolve the messy ideological conflict between unification and independence. Tsai is clearly right in establishing a think tank to deliberate on how the party can establish dialogue with Beijing. She must also continue to push the “10-year policy platform” that will give the party a broader appeal in areas of domestic governance and foreign policy other than cross-strait issues.