Why the DPP remains a house divided

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 March, 2011, 12:00am

If it is true that a house divided against itself cannot stand, as Abraham Lincoln once said, then the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan is in trouble.

The fight for DPP nomination to run for Taiwan's president will start today as the party's popular chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen declares her intention to run in next year's election - days after another DPP stalwart Annette Lu Hsiu-lien announced her candidacy.

When the party was founded in 1987, there were only 1,093 members, according to Lu, former vice-president. By the time party candidate Chen Shui-bian was re-elected president in 2004, the number had soared to 530,975.

But when the Kuomintang re-emerged a landslide victor in both the legislative elections at the end of 2007 and the presidential election in March 2008, which placed Ma Ying-jeou in office, the pro-independence opposition was left reeling. Now, three years later, a battle over the method of choosing candidates for the year-end legislative and next March's presidential election indicates the DPP house is still divided at a time when unity to win in those elections is so important.

Part of the infighting has to do with an issue that any organisation in transition faces: which is better, a return to former ways or an advance towards fresh ideas?

When Lu, 66, declared her candidacy for the DPP's nomination for the presidency on Monday, she did not hide her disapproval of party members who considered her a troublemaker and called for her to hand over the baton of leadership to the younger generation.

'Don't underestimate me,' and 'never assume I would lose,' said Lu, who served as vice-president under Chen from 2000 to 2008.

Never one to back down from a fight, she has not withheld judgment over her party's decision to change the nomination method, saying it would only benefit popular politicians like Tsai.

Lu directly confronted the party during an extraordinary congress in January over whether to use public opinion polls, instead of voting by members, in selecting candidates to run for the coming legislative elections as well as the presidential election. Tsai was among those who favoured the new format.

The rumblings of discontent arose while she was making a speech during the congress. Suddenly, a veteran delegate rushed to the podium and snatched her microphone.

'Give me back my NT$10,000 [HK$2,628] membership fee,' shouted the delegate, Lin Chin-hsun, as party workers took him away.

Outside the congress venue, a group of banner-holding DPP members shouted: 'No voting by members, and no more membership fees', 'Democratic Regressive Party', and 'All party members want their rights to vote'.

Lu - who advocated a three-tiered nomination method that included public debates among the aspirants, and members' voting in primary and public opinion polls - lashed out at the new format, saying it would sacrifice the interests of loyal party members who had paid NT$10,000 for lifelong memberships.

The problem with old method was the corrupt practice of rich aspirants buying votes from members or using a large number of surrogate members to win the party's nominations to run for those elective offices.

Under the new format, instead of having party members vote in primaries to select the candidates, the nominations would totally depend on the results of several telephone opinion polls.

But those surveys would also include non-DPP members, and some party elders, including Lu and former civil service administration president Yao Chia-wen, said that was not only unfair, but also deprived party members of their right to make their voices heard by voting.

'How can several thousand telephone poll respondents represent the 16 million eligible voters of Taiwan?' Lu asked. She also argued that the new format favoured Tsai and former premier Su Tseng-chang, who were more popular with the media than she was.

In the end, not only did the congress approve the adoption of the new format by a 70-30 per cent vote, but it also adopted another proposal to allow the party leaders to name the members of a committee that would pick the candidates for the at-large legislative seats - a practice that would further increase Tsai's power.

The ruckus exposed the infightings and power struggles among the higher echelons of the pro-independence party, which were once handled privately.

'With the 2012 presidential election to be held in just a year's time, infighting and power struggles within the DPP will become more severe,' said George Tsai Wei, political science professor at Chinese Cultural University in Taipei.

'Bigwigs like Lu, Su and former premier Frank Hsieh Chang-ting, as well as Tsai Ing-wen are fighting to win the party nomination to run for the presidency.'

Shortly after the congress, many DPP local committees received calls of protest from members, with some saying they would quit the party.

'They said it was pointless to join the party now that members had been deprived of the rights to vote in primaries,' said Chuang Jui-hsiung, director of the DPP Taipei City Committee.

In 2008, with Tsai Ing-wen at the helm, there were still 484,889 members, but only 160,000 members paid their annual dues last year. As of the end of January, only 30,000-40,000 members had paid dues this year.

'The loss of members will have serious repercussions for the DPP when it is facing legislative elections at the end of this year and the presidential election in March next year,' said former DPP caucus whip Chai Trong-rong said.

At a 'loyal members to save Taiwan' meeting - jointly organised by such veteran leaders as You Ching, Chai, Parris Chang, Chang Kuei-mu, Wang Hsien-chi and Huang Ching-lin - some participants began circulating a letter calling for Tsai Ing-wen's resignation over the massive loss of members.

But party leaders fought back, saying there was no obvious loss of members, as the number - at 321,377 - remained more or less the same between this and last year.

'Delay in paying membership dues is not equal to a loss of members,' Tsai Ing-wen said. She also called for unity, saying it was highly important to fight against the Kuomintang and regain power.

Incumbent DPP caucus head Ker Chien-min reminded the elders of Tsai's efforts to keep the party from falling apart since the 2008 presidential election and restore the image of the DPP, which had become tainted by Chen's conviction for acts of corruption while he was president.

Su said although the loss of members was a problem the DPP must face, it was not fair to put sole blame on Tsai for the adoption of the new nomination format. 'After all, it was passed by the party congress, and not by the chairwoman herself,' he said.

Taiwanese media saw that comment as a gesture to mend fences with Tsai after Su ran for the mayoral post in Taipei in the five special municipality elections last year. That decision forced Tsai, who stood a better chance in the capital, to run for the mayoral post in New Taipei City, the former Taipei county, where Su had been magistrate. In the end, both Su and Tsai lost.

Hsieh, who teamed up with Su for an unsuccessful power bid in the 2008 presidential election, said it was up to Tsai to decide whether to run for president before he would announce his own decision.

News commentator Chu Chen-chieh said by befriending Tsai, Hsieh - whose is far less popular than the DPP chairwoman and Su - could hope to succeed Tsai as party leader once she quit to run for president.

'After all, Hsieh's faction is still politically influential, and Tsai might need support from Hsieh in running for president,' Chu said.

Political analyst Tang Hsiang-lung said campaigns by Lu and Hsieh, whose chances were not good, could even sabotage the party if it split into enough factions.

Just what the DPP, a house divided, doesn't need.