The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has long had difficulties attracting members. Following recent media reports that numerous people with ties to the underworld had applied to join the party, DPP chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) found himself set upon from both within his own party and without.
Although the party’s central office immediately denied the claims, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) had a field day.
Member votes form the basis of the DPP’s leadership elections and the party power structure, as well as one of the main sources for nominations for election to public office. They will affect the nominations for next year’s seven-in-one elections, and even those for the 2016 presidential election.
The DPP has always been paranoid about infiltration by the KMT, and has kept itself a tight-knit operation, one that is not very easy to join. Despite a recent push for greater internal party democracy, the party’s structure has seen few changes in recent years.
Also, as civil society seems to become more apathetic and more reluctant to get involved, problems with attracting new members remain.
The main players in the DPP can be divided into two types: The first attracts supporters by virtue of their record in public office, and these supporters then become members. The second type includes local figures who see attracting members as a form of political investment to secure their own nominations or to engage in factional politics. The former attracts members through their political convictions; the latter just brings people to wherever they want them to vote and hands out temporary membership cards together with a list of who to vote for.
Initially, the DPP had opted for voting by local leaders, allowing party members in public positions to decide candidates, but the emergence of internal vote-buying scandals, especially involving legislators, forced a change. The party then implemented US-style primaries to select a candidate for the nation’s first presidential election in 1996, choosing Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), who had recently returned from exile in the US.
This system was subsequently abandoned, as several factions within the party were reluctant to relinquish control.
More recently, public polls have gained importance, and have completely replaced nominations by party members only, allowing all potential voters to decide the candidate. This not only minimizes distortions introduced by the party membership, but also appeals to the wider public.
Political parties cannot require people to provide a certificate to prove they have no criminal record when applying for party membership. The DPP is strictly vetting applicants, and now the party’s Central Standing Committee has decided that new party members would only be allowed to run or vote in party elections after they have been a member for two years. This decision will have serious repercussions, for it increases the current membership’s power and influence within the party, making the party vulnerable to factional control.
The party needs to strike a balance between how it would like to do things and what is realistic.
Party membership reform presents the party’s central leadership with a difficult choice. The DPP is still a fairly closed organization, and it needs to decide if it wants to open up and move in the direction of how political parties are run in the US. It needs to decide if it is willing to allow funding to come mainly from political donations, to allow regular party members to choose central and local party leaders and to allow candidates for public office to be selected through open primaries.
This could be a painful process, but reform is likely to go in this direction in the long run.