Greater Tainan Mayor William Lai (賴清德) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has won praise for his governance and has been described as “presidential.” However, when a 52-year-old politician is tapped as a party’s “rising young star,” the party might be in trouble.
While it is true that New Taipei City (新北市) Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫), Lai’s former college classmate, shares the same acclaim as a possible Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate, a deeper examination would find that the DPP has lagged far behind the KMT in terms of developing young talent.
The current crop of DPP leaders still include those known as “the Formosa Magazine generation,” including DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), 66; former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), 69; former premier Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), 67; former premier Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃), 65; and Greater Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊), 63. Former DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is the youngest at 57.
What is scary is that some of them are either eyeing the DPP chairmanship or planning to enter the county commissioner and mayoral elections next year.
Looking down the list of the aspirants, hardly anyone emerges as a refreshing candidate, the exception being 49-year-old DPP Legislator Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍), who is trying to win nomination in Greater Taichung.
In comparison, the KMT has nurtured a group of young politicians over the years, with some already serving as mayors and county commissioners and others waiting in the wings.
To name a few, former KMT deputy secretary-general Lo Chih-chiang (羅智強) is only 43 years old, the same age as Sean Lien (連勝文), a son of former vice president Lien Chan (連戰). Taoyuan County Commissioner John Wu (吳志揚) is 44. Former Executive Yuan spokesperson Su Chun-pin (蘇俊賓) is 37, while former National Youth Commission minister Chen Yi-chen (陳以真) is 36.
In a challenging time of rapidly changing cross-strait relations, it would be difficult for the DPP to win younger people’s votes if it runs with the same politicians from 30 years ago.
It is not that the DPP does not have aspiring young members who want to devote their energy and ideals to politics. However, it seems two factors have prevented them from rising in the party.
First, the older politicians have been resisting the call for a “generational shift.” While younger is not necessarily better in politics, the lack of upward mobility has not only hindered younger DPP members’ political careers, but has also alienated a younger base of core supporters.
Second, the long stretch without a generational shift has made young DPP members less courageous and adventurous than their predecessors. Many young members are satisfied with being staffers or aides and not interested in running for office.
The phenomenon would likely further alienate voters in the elections in the short term, since the older politicians could fail to present new ideas and initiatives, and hurt the party’s development.
Lacking the KMT’s financial resources and solid grassroots organization, the last thing the DPP needs is to lose the competition for fresh faces.
It once led the way in this area. In 2000, former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) won the presidential election at 47 and brought with him a group of young politicians, such as Lo Wen-jia (羅文嘉) and Ma Yung-cheng (馬永成), both of whom were in their 30s, to his administration.
The party introduced then-56-year-old Tsai in last year’s presidential election as a young voice for the next generation. Regardless of how ironic the introduction may have been, the DPP cannot hope to look youthful given the current potential candidates for national elections, and time will not help the prospects of an aging party.