The election for chairperson of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), for which campaigning is currently underway, is very unusual. What makes it unusual is not the fact that there are five candidates standing for the post — a record number for the DPP — nor the anxiety expressed by many party members at the start of the race, but that it has centered around seeking amnesty for former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
On the day the candidates were due to present their policies in the first debate, six DPP county commissioners and mayors issued a joint statement urging the candidates to put unity first, present their platforms in a rational way and desist from personal attacks.
The message this gave was that solving internal problems is the DPP’s top priority at this moment. However, a party that is only concerned with handling its internal problems will find it hard to inspire enthusiastic support among the public, and even among its own members.
There is indeed a clear contrast between the last election for the DPP chairmanship in 2008 and the present one. The 2008 election was held in the wake of successive major defeats for the DPP in presidential and legislative elections, and influential senior party figures were not very interested in the post of chairperson. Nevertheless, grassroots party members who did not want to see the DPP fade into oblivion did care and got actively involved in campaigning.
The situation now is rather different.
In January’s presidential election, the DPP managed to get its candidate, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), just 800,000 votes shy of her Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rival, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). In the four months since that election, a lot of people have come to strongly regret having voted for the wrong person.
Although Ma was voted in for a second term, he is now more unpopular than ever. This presents a great opportunity for the DPP, changing the attitude of senior party members toward the chairperson election. While some of them have chosen to stand as candidates, others have gotten actively involved in campaigning to influence the election.
In spite of this, party members in general are a lot less enthusiastic this time around. The most enthusiastic and active ones are Chen’s supporters. As a result of their efforts, the recent election debate turned into a rally to save Chen, and that is what is really unique about this election.
Even though the public and DPP members gave the debate a cool reception, Chen was very pleased with it. His office released a statement expressing its gratitude to the five candidates for stating their unified support of him. During the debate, four of the five candidates explicitly called for Chen to be given a presidential amnesty. Only one former premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), took a more moderate position by proposing that Chen could be saved by allowing him to receive medical attention outside the prison.
Before January’s presidential election, Chen’s supporters were pinning their hopes for his salvation on the prospect of Tsai winning the presidency. They thought that Chen’s conviction for corruption was an act of political oppression, so there would be no point in asking Ma to pardon him. They also knew that talking about amnesty would not be good for the party’s prospects in the national elections, so during the campaign they were against calling for amnesty. Contrary to their expectations, however, the DPP lost the elections.