Tsai Ing-wen has announced that she will run for president, and everyone expects Su Tseng-chang to follow suit in the near future. This ends a couple of weeks during which many DPP leaders seemed to be trying to come to some consensus about who should be the nominee without going through a messy primary process. I am not surprised that Tsai effectively ended that pressure with her announcement. As the more junior of the two viable candidates, any negotiated solution would almost certainly have ended with her yielding to Su.
More to the point, I am a little uncertain why so many people in the DPP seem to think that avoiding a primary is desirable. The DPP has always been an election driven party. That is, the most powerful people in the party are powerful because they were able to grab power through electoral victories. The natural way for them to decide who the nominee will be is through a test of strength. This idea that conflict should be avoided at all costs reminds me of the authoritarian era KMT who were constantly trying to consolidate power around the leadership 鞏固領導中心, because any struggle among leaders might tempt one of them to reach out for popular support – and that might lead to something terrible, such as democracy. The DPP should not get caught up in these sorts of debates. Democratic parties fight all the time about who will lead them and which direction they will go in. This is a healthy process.
Moreover, the DPP has an important discussion that it needs to hold. In her campaign last year and in her announcement, Tsai spoke extensively about her vision of building a social welfare state. If she becomes the nominee and especially if she wins the election, she will take the DPP in a very different direction. They need to decide right now if they are willing to go in that direction. If they don’t want to shift in the direction of social welfare, then they should stay with Su, who will probably maintain traditional DPP economic policies. If most of the party wants to radically shift in the direction that Tsai wants to go in, they need to forge an internal consensus within the party. Otherwise, the DPP risks a crisis later down the road when they find that their leader is going in strange and unexpected directions. As a commentator, I’m not taking a position on whether building a comprehensive social welfare state is a good idea or not. I’m just saying that if the DPP wants to go in that direction, they need to forge a political consensus first. Politics must come first if the public policy is to have any chance of success.
So I think it is a very good thing for the DPP that it will have an intensely fought primary. Taking the politics out of politics is usually a bad idea.
In a previous post, I wrote that the DPP revamped its nomination rules for the legislative nominations to give the party leader(s) the power to decide nominations for the party list and for “difficult” districts, and that this represented a power-grab by Tsai Ing-wen. I should have written that it “looked to me” like a power grab by Tsai. Any time a party votes to give a lot more power to its leader, I am inclined to assume that the leader (1) wanted more power, and (2) was working to get more power. I tend to put less weight on what everyone is actually saying since people don’t always speak sincerely in such situations. Moreover, there are lots of ways to make such decisions (ie: contested primaries of some sort) without having to resort to decisions by the central leadership. So it looked to me like a power grab. (Note: Power grabs are not always bad. One of the biggest problems of Ma’s first year as president was that he refused to seize power within the KMT so that Lien Chan 連戰, Wu Po-hsiung 吳伯雄, and others could go around acting as if they were in charge.)
I’m re-evaluating that judgment in light of Tsai’s announcement that she is stepping aside as chair to contest the presidential nomination. I did not assume that she would step aside since she didn’t bother to do so last year when she was running for New Taipei City Mayor. However, she presumably knew that she would step aside a month ago, and so she may have realized that the nomination power would accrue to someone else. If that is the case, then the decision perhaps was not aimed at strengthening herself within the party as a means of winning the presidential nomination. Or perhaps it was. She may have felt confident enough that she would leave her allies in charge of the party that this decision would work in her favor even if she weren’t personally chairing the meetings. At any rate, I think it is a lot more fruitful to think about all these decisions in terms of whose power was increased or decreased than in terms of statements to the press.
Three years ago, DPP candidates got obliterated in most districts. Perhaps one lesson that DPP politicians learned is that it doesn’t do much good to win a nomination in a lousy district. Of course, they already knew this, but it seems to really have sunk in this time. We see all the DPP candidates desperately trying to seize a nomination in a good district, and no one seems remotely interested in the swing districts, much less the difficult ones. Nowhere is this more evident than in Taipei City. Taipei City has one district that the DPP should win (Datong-Shilin), one district that it has a weak but real chance of winning (Beitou-Tianmu), three districts that it has an outside chance of winning if everything goes right (Zhongshan-Songshan, Nangang-Neihu, Wanhua-Zhongzheng), and three districts that it has absolutely no chance in hell of winning (Da-an, Wenshan-Zhongzheng, Xinyi-Songshan). Right now everyone is piling into the one good district. Currently there are four strong candidates (Tuan Yi-kang 段宜康, Yao Wen-chih 姚文智, Kuo Cheng-liang 郭正亮, and Luo Wen-chia 羅文嘉) and another (Chuang Rui-hsiung 莊瑞雄) has announced but withdrawn. I haven’t heard of anyone expressing interest in any of the other seven districts. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this is going to unfold. One of these four will win the nomination, and the other three will start looking for a new district. Perhaps they will suddenly discover a burning passion to serve the voters of Beitou or Zhongshan.
Of course, this has all been facilitated by the DPP’s decision to designate 40 districts as “difficult.” By leaving these 40 districts empty and available for losers, the DPP is basically inviting all strong candidates to take a shot at winning one of the “good” nominations. There are always lots of consolation prizes. Moreover, many of these so-called difficult districts are ones that the DPP should plan on trying to win. Given the swing in popular opinion that we have consistently witnessed over the last year and a half, several of these should be considered tossup districts and many others are in the realm of possibility.
So the dilemma that the DPP faced was this. On the one hand, it has the current system in which many politicians will end up as nominees in a district they did not really want to be in. There is the risk that the KMT opponent will hammer them with this. “My opponent really wants to be in Xinzhuang City. I have always wanted to represent the people of Danshui and no one else. He’s only here in Danshui because they didn’t want him in Xinzhuang. Well, we don’t want their rejects!” It might be far better if the DPP required everyone to choose a district from the beginning so that some of the stronger politicians might strategically decide that they have no chance of winning the nomination in the good district and just go straight to the weaker district. This is what the DPP has always done in the past. For example in 2001, they required members to choose whether they wanted to contest the county magistrate, district legislator, or list legislator nominees. They didn’t hold county magistrate nominations first and then let the losers run for legislator. On the other hand, the DPP might calculate that, regardless of their nomination system, the strongest politicians are overwhelmingly going to try for one of the good districts. If they were to force everyone to choose at the very beginning, the result would be that a lot of strong candidates were effectively ruled ineligible and you would have a field of really weak candidates running in tossup districts.
Interestingly, they did not decide to have a second round of primaries in the difficult districts. That is, they could have settled the nominations for the 33 strong districts in April and then started the whole process over for the other 40 districts with primaries being held in June or July. If no one wanted to contest them, they would still have the option of drafting someone. Instead, they decided to have all those nominations decided by the central party headquarters. I don’t know why they went this route. Maybe they worried that candidates who had already lost one primary would be financially or organizationally too exhausted to contest a second primary. Maybe those candidates simply wouldn’t have any credibility in a new district so soon after losing in a different district. Or maybe the people in control of the party headquarters wanted a bit more power in their hands.