Soong’s strategic electoral thinking

By Liu Shih-chung 劉世忠  / 

Sat, Nov 12, 2011 - Page 8

When it comes to elections, People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) is no doubt a unique political figure. He started his political career as a secretary to the late president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). Soong then built up his profile in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as the director-general of the Government Information Office, as KMT secretary-general and as the only elected governor of Taiwan Province.

At almost every twist and turn of the KMT’s internal power struggles, Soong has always played a pivotal role. Once, as the most popular elected politician, Soong’s political credentials posed a threat to other KMT heavyweights, including former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). That led to Soong’s departure from the KMT after entering the 2000 presidential election as an independent candidate.

At the peak of his political career, Soong would have won the 2000 election if it hadn’t been for a scandal. Instead, then--Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) benefited from the split in the KMT and won the election.

Soong later established the PFP, but was gradually marginalized after the change of electoral rules to a single-member district following constitutional reform in 2005.

In 2006, Soong made an unsuccessful bid for the post of Taipei City mayor, winning only 50,000 votes. His political life seemed to have reached an end, so who would have believed that he is now back on the political stage and pledging to run in January’s presidential election?

Various opinion polls suggest there is no chance of Soong winning the presidential election, where President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is facing a tough challenge from DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

Soong’s public support rate ranges from 10 percent to 15 percent, which is about 600,000 to 700,000 votes. Given an expected razor-thin split between Ma and Tsai, Soong’s share of the vote would mostly come from the pan-blue camp and may hurt Ma more than Tsai, although last-minute calls by the KMT to “save Ma by dumping Soong” could downplay Soong’s impact.

So what exactly are Soong’s motives behind his potential presidential bid? There are three major reasons.

First, it is a continuation of a personal rivalry between Soong and Ma. That Ma has never shown any respect toward Soong has driven the PFP presidential hopeful to use his participation to retaliate against Ma.

Second, if Ma is unseated, Soong could seek opportunities to cooperate with Tsai after the election. One of Soong’s main goals in his election campaign is to raise his party’s standing ahead of the legislative elections. If the PFP can secure at least three or five seats in the Legislative Yuan, Soong could continue to wield political influence by playing the role of a critical third force.

A coalition government or cooperation on individual pieces of legislation is also likely if Soong is able to establish an issue-driven basis for cooperation with Tsai, should she be elected president, and independent legislators.

Moreover, if Ma loses, the KMT would face a serious internal split.

Soong has had his eyes on all these elements.

Finally, before Soong officially registers as a candidate by Nov. 25, there is room for negotiation and cooperation between the KMT and the PFP. However, Ma has long demonstrated an arrogant and disrespectful attitude toward Soong. Such animosity reduces the chances of cooperation.

Soong has nothing to lose by entering the presidential election. He also has no reason to pull out of the race, which would damage the PFP’s legislative campaign.

Moreover, neither Ma nor Tsai can afford to overlook Soong as a significant element over the next two months. If Ma loses the presidency, Soong’s new political era will just be starting to unfold.

Liu Shih-chung is a senior research fellow at the Taipei-based Taiwan Brain Trust.