As the dust finally settled around the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential nominations last month, the fight between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has begun.
Polls conducted by media outlets on April 27, the day the nominations were officially announced, showed Tsai entering the race with an advantage over Ma. With Ma long struggling in the polls, many think Tsai stands a good chance of becoming Taiwan’s first female president.
The KMT government has committed a wide range of bureaucratic blunders and policy missteps that have been widely criticized. Ma’s management style has also been critiqued for being authoritarian and opaque. More importantly, despite persistent crowing about economic numbers, few Taiwanese have felt the economic recovery where it counts. Unemployment is still high and salaries remain stagnant. Ma’s cross-strait policy worries many who fear the repercussions of potential political negotiations with Beijing.
With these factors and Ma’s low popularity levels, Tsai could theoretically take the January poll.
However, the better question may not be whether Tsai can win, but is she capable of doing so?
Considered an “atypical” politician, the 55-year-old London School of Economics graduate has led the DPP to a string of successes since September 2009, when the party won a legislative by-election in Yunlin for its first electoral victory since Tsai became its leader. Her mellow temperament and practical approach has won over many moderates who were turned off by the nationalistic fear-mongering of former DPP president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
Yet, personal appeal is not enough. Nor can the DPP rely on government blunders and economic hardship to drive voters into its fold. Ma’s policies may be worrying, but no one wants to relive the tensions of the Chen era. Indeed, one realistic analysis says that to win re-election, Ma needs only to minimize KMT mistakes and continue painting the DPP as a bunch of divided troublemakers bent on holding the nation hostage to a hopeless cross-strait policy.
Circumstances, therefore, will not decide the presidency; Tsai will have to earn it.
Above all, this requires that she and the party act decisively to limit vulnerability to KMT attacks. Thanks to former premier Su Tseng-chang’s (蘇貞昌) gracious concession after losing the DPP primary, the potential for party disunity has been blunted. Commentators have also played up the virtues of internal debate within the DPP as more democratic and less prone to error than the KMT’s top-down approach.
DPP inexperience in governing is also open to criticism and this will only increase now that political neophyte Tsai is the candidate. Here too, the party has moved to pre-empt attacks, including on Tsai’s thin political resume, with advocates pointing out that as a new face she carries little political baggage and that she has balanced her inexperience with a strong support staff. By instituting a “10-year policy platform,” Tsai has also sought to give the DPP greater breadth as a potential ruling party.
The need for a wider policy platform, however, infers the elephant in the room — Tsai’s China policy — which is her greatest liability given that her party identifies with Taiwan independence. This, more than anything, will determine her viability as a candidate.