The race to head the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officially began this week. Five contenders are competing for the DPP chairmanship: former premier and DPP co-founder Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌); former DPP chairman Hsu Hsin-liang (許信良); former vice premier and current Taiwan Brain Trust chairman Wu Rong-i (吳榮義); former Tainan County commissioner Su Huan-chi (蘇煥智); and former legislator Chai Trong-rong (蔡同榮).
More than 160,000 registered DPP members are eligible to vote. Past records show an average voter turnout of about 50 percent. With the increased competition this time, voter turnout might increase. Whoever can secure at least 40,000 votes will be elected chairman. The term is for two years.
The election is significant for several reasons. First, it is a challenge to the DPP’s internal unity and policy re-orientation in the so-called “post-Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) era.” Since former DPP chairperson Tsai lost to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in January’s presidential election by 6 percentage points — or nearly 800,000 votes — the next DPP chairman must initiate reforms to the party’s central and local organizations, and possibly policy adjustments.
Second, Taiwanese politics has entered a two-year election-free period, opening a window of opportunity for the next DPP chief to review key policies, including the DPP’s China policy.
Finally, since the next major poll will be the “seven-in-one” local and municipal elections in late 2014, the new chairman will be responsible for the nominations.
Therefore, the next DPP chairman bears more political responsibilities and faces more political hurdles than his predecessor.
Among the five competitors, each has his own strengths and weaknesses. Su Tseng-chang is no doubt the most popular figure. His stance on cross-strait relations is pragmatic and consistent, but that has made him an easy target by other contenders. Some die-hard Taiwanese independence advocates within the pan-green camp have accused Su Tseng-chang of wavering on safeguarding Taiwan’s sovereignty, as well as ambiguity on endorsing a petition to pardon former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
That explains why Su Tseng-chang has paid several visits to senior DPP leaders, including Tsai and Chen, in the past few weeks and publicly called for unity. On the question of how to forge a balanced cross-strait policy, Su Tseng-chang has suggested an active engagement with China and a realistic understanding about the current and future China. He advocates dialogue over confrontation when dealing with Beijing, while standing steadfast on ensuring Taiwanese’s rights to decide their future.
Hsu has long been known for his aggressive support of an open policy toward China, while the three others are seen as representing the “Taiwanese independence” camp. Since the new chairman will be elected directly by DPP members — not the general public — Hsu appears to be the weakest candidate. Still, some of his ideas could provide new thinking for DPP supporters.
Although staunchly pro-independence, Wu, Tsai and Su Huan-chi also recognize the importance of engaging China, while insisting “Taiwan and China are two countries on either side of the Taiwan Strait.” It is hard for the “independence camp” to win the chairmanship, but they can help check and balance the future party chairman.