Following the first debate between the presidential candidates in next month’s election, media outlets have been full of commentary, awarding marks to the three contenders for their performances, while analyzing their debating skills and strategies.
People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) took several opportunities to put a dampener on issues of contention between his opponents, Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), thus appearing to be more moderate and tolerant than the other two contenders.
Some analysts have described Soong’s debating style as “odd,” with some commentators saying they think that by refraining from harsh criticism against Ma, Soong was “passing the ball” to his KMT rival. Others are of the opinion that Soong intentionally marginalized himself and conclude that he is only going through the motions in this campaign and may yet be persuaded to withdraw from the race.
Each of these viewpoints has its rationale, but my view is that if I were in Soong’s shoes I would have followed the same debating strategy, not for altruistic purposes, but because it would be the best thing for me.
Soong started out as a member of the KMT and indeed rose to become KMT secretary-general, so his participation in the presidential race inevitably affects the prospects of Ma, who doubles as KMT chairman. Indeed Soong has upset a lot of KMT stalwarts, who say he should “look at the big picture” and avoid “betraying his own side.”
If Soong had been overly critical of Ma during the debate, he would have further infuriated those people, who are already determined to vote for the KMT. He would have also made a bad impression on “light blue” voters, who still feel some sympathy for Soong, who risks being labeled as a closet “green” for helping Tsai lay siege to Ma. If he had done that, it would have become almost impossible for him to get any support from pan-blue voters. He might have won some gratitude from people in the pan-green camp, but those people are pretty solid in their support for Tsai, so it is unthinkable that they would vote for Soong. What would be the point for Soong of going on the offensive in the debate if it wouldn’t get supporters of either political camp on his side?
The next point to consider is that Soong portrays himself as being above the blue-green divide and being concerned only with the public interest. If he had got entangled in the blue-green rivalry and resentments during the debate and followed Ma and Tsai’s lead in walking circles around questions to which they were unwilling to give a straight answer, how could he have continued to claim to be above the blue-green divide?
Soong did criticize Ma a few times during the debate, but only in relation to the kinds of policy issues that have a direct effect on ordinary people’s lives, such as excessive government borrowing, rising unemployment, the excessive gap between rich and poor and so on. He hardly touched on pointless political mudslinging.
It is clear that Soong had a purpose in speaking so cautiously, which was to stay focused on the core thrust of his presidential campaign and show that he only cares about ordinary people’s livelihood. Some media observed that Soong’s aim was to win support from moderate voters who are thoroughly sick of wrangling between the pan-blue and pan-green camps, and it is an observation with which I definitely agree.
The final point to be made is that Soong, whose support rating in opinion polls is stuck at about 10 percent, must know that he stands little chance of winning the election, barring a miracle or some unexpected political storm. However, he is also the leader of a party that is flickering like a candle in the wind. As chairman, he bears the chief responsibility for trying to revive his party’s fortunes and the key to its fortunes is the number of seats it can win in the legislative elections.
If Soong can hold steady, cautiously keep to his position of transcending the blue-green divide, retain sympathy votes from “pale blue” voters and attract support from moderates, it will help improve the election prospects of PFP legislative candidates. If the PFP is able to establish itself as a key minority caucus in the legislature, then no matter which party stands at Taiwan’s helm, it will no longer be able to pretend Soong doesn’t exist.
Hsu Yu-fang is associate professor and chairman of Sinophone literature at National Dong Hwa University.
Transated by Julian Clegg
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