OPINION: Tsai's Uninspiring Cabinet Choices Reveal a Dearth of DPP Talent

OPINION: Tsai's Uninspiring Cabinet Choices Reveal a Dearth of DPP Talent
Credit: Taiwan Presidential Office
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Tsai had an opportunity to elevate young, progressive DPP voices after her cabinet resigned en masse earlier this month. She failed to seize it.

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Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once famously said: “A week is a long time in politics.”

Taiwan is a relatively young democracy, so perhaps things here are not yet quite up to full speed. But the mood around Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is markedly different from just two short months ago.

Back then, on Nov. 24, 2018, Taiwanese voters took to the polls in their millions in the now-infamous nine-in-one elections. They delivered what look to be a devastating defeat for the DPP. Out of 20 city mayor and country magistrate races, the DPP won just six, compared to 13 some four years earlier.

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Read More: Understanding Taiwan's 'Blue Wave' of 2018

Roll on two months and these defeats look anything but devastating. The DPP are riding on the crest of a wave, thanks in no small part to a speech by Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, which either badly misjudged the mood in Taiwan or did not care about it, and a robust response from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) which has received a storm of plaudits at home.

Of course, there had to be some fallout from the Nov. 24, 2018 election catastrophe, and there has been. Tsai resigned as DPP chairperson on the same night and subsequently her entire cabinet followed suit, including the popular Premier William Lai (賴清德).

This course of action was to be expected, but what has raised a few eyebrows has been the people President Tsai has promoted to replace them.

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Credit: Reuters / Fabian Hamacher
Su Tseng-chang (R) is Taiwan's new Premier, replacing William Lai (2nd R).
Disaster in Kaohsiung, disappointment in New Taipei City

Arguably the two most seismic defeats suffered by the DPP that night were in Kaohsiung, traditionally the party’s southern stronghold, and New Taipei City.

Kaohsiung has been a solid green seat for 20 years. Chen Chu (陳菊) held the role for the DPP from 2006 until 2018 and won the previous election in 2014 by a huge margin, securing 993,300 votes (68 percent) compared to 450,647 (31 percent) for her Kuomintang (KMT) opponent, Yang Chiu-hsing (楊秋興).

In 2018, Chen Chu had taken up a role as Secretary-General to the President, so a new DPP candidate was needed for Kaohsiung. Step forward, Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁). On the face of it, Chen looked like a safe pair of hands. He served in the Legislative Yuan for six years, was a former Deputy Secretary-General of the Presidential Office, and even had a short spell as acting Mayor of Kaohsiung.

But Chen delivered one of the worst results in the DPP’s history, turning a 500,000 vote majority into a 150,00 vote defeat as he secured a mere 742,239 votes (45 percent) against KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜)’s 892,545 votes (54 percent).

There were a number of different factors behind this astonishing result, many of which were out of Chen’s hands. These included the threat of fake news emanating from China, disillusionment with central government policies, and Han Kuo-yu’s campaign of rhetoric and spin. But the fact remains that Chen is the candidate who Kaohsiung supporters found so uninspiring and devoid of policy that he delivered a vote swing of more than 650,000. His candidacy in Kaohsiung can be described as nothing more than an abject failure.

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Credit: AP / TPG
Chen Chi-mai delivered failure in Kaohsiung. Why has he seemingly been rewarded? (Read More)

It was a slightly different story in New Taipei City. This special municipality had been in the hands of the KMT for the past two elections. But it voted for the DPP in huge numbers in the 2016 elections, winning 55 percent of the Presidential vote and 47 percent of the Legislative Yuan vote (to the KMTs 40 percent).

It was therefore no surprise that the DPP turned to a high-profile candidate to try and win the role of Mayor. Their chosen candidate was Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), one of the so-called “Big Four” of the DPP. He has twice served as both Chair of the DPP and twice been Premier of the Republic of China, as well as holding the role of Chief of Staff to President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

Crucially, he also served as Taipei County Magistrate (before the role was rebranded as Mayor of New Taipei City) for two terms between 1997 and 2004. He is a seasoned and well-respected political figure with a close relationship and history with New Taipei City. The DPP, understandably, fancied their chances of winning the seat back from the KMT with Su as their candidate.

But the exact opposite happened as Su led the DPP to a crushing defeat. He secured just 873,692 votes (43 percent) against his KMT rival Hou You-yi’s (侯友宜) 1,165,130 votes (57 percent). Even more damningly, Su only secured more votes than Hou in five of New Taipei’s 29 districts.

Su’s defeat was overshadowed by the DPP’s losses in Kaohsiung and elsewhere. But make no mistake, it was a catastrophic loss for both the party and Su himself.

Is the DPP rewarding failure?

In normal circumstances, you would expect results such as these to effectively end the political careers of Chen Chi-mai and Su Tseng-chang. Politicians just do not make comebacks from such massive defeats in modern democracies. But we do not live in normal times and just two months later, things are looking very rosy for both of them.

With the resignation of William Lai and his cabinet colleagues – although most ministers wound up staying on – the DPP suddenly had a lot of senior jobs to fill. Remarkably, President Tsai has turned to Su and Chen to fill the two biggest.

Su Tseng-chang is now Premier of the Republic of China for a third time, while Chen Chi-mai will serve as his deputy. Astonishingly, these appointments seem to have barely battered an eyelid in Taiwan.

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Credit: Taiwan Presidential Office
Su Tseng-chang is Taiwan's new Premier after losing his mayoral race in New Taipei. (Read More)

But why? Just a few weeks ago, Su and Chen were responsible for two of the DPP’s worst results in the nine-in-one elections. It was these results that led to the resignation of Tsai as DPP Chair and her entire cabinet. Yet it is Su and Chen who have ultimately benefitted the most. They have been appointed (not elected) into roles that carry a great deal more responsibility than they would have held if they had won their mayoral races.

There are a few possibilities to consider. One is that Tsai doesn’t hold them directly responsible for their respective defeats. There is a school of thought that a lot of the antipathy voters showed towards the DPP during the nine-in-one elections was down to the unpopularity of Tsai herself and a number of her flagship policies.

It is certainly true that the DPP’s pension reforms, though necessary and inevitable, have gone down like a lead balloon with many older voters who turned out in large numbers for the KMT back in November.

But it would seem astonishing that Tsai wouldn’t expect her candidates, both experienced and senior political figures, to shoulder at least a share of the blame for the defeats. Neither managed to make any headway whatsoever with the electorate, establish a policy platform voters could relate to, or mount any form of counter-attack against the pro-KMT propaganda that swept Taiwan both from China and the pro-nationalist media.

Another possibility is that Tsai thinks the public perception of Su and Chen has changed. In the case of Chen, it is certainly true that his personal popularity has shot up since the election. Maybe President Tsai is hoping to ride this wave.

But how much is Chen’s popularity rooted in his own personal and political qualities? Much of it can be put down to the speed with which people have seen through the bluster and rhetoric of his opponent in Kaohsiung, Han Kuo-yu. His recent appearance before Kaohsiung council in which he admitted only one of his twelve key policy pledges was even remotely deliverable is just the latest of his many gaffs and there are no shortage of people in the city who already deeply regret supporting him.

A good number of these people have turned to Chen because he campaigned against Han. For Chen’s part, he has also managed to successfully adopt some of Han’s key campaign techniques. His online presence and sudden tendency to speak freely and openly has gone down extremely well with voters. But should President Tsai be rewarding him for this already, or rather should she be asking him why he couldn’t have achieved this during the election campaign?

Another possible motivation behind the promotion of Su and Chen could be self-preservation. The nine-in-one elections deeply damaged Tsai and many assumed the results would put an end to any hopes she might have of seeking, let alone winning, re-election in 2020.

However, her response to Xi Jinping’s threats in his Jan. 2 speech have gone down a storm with voters and her polls have spiked as a result. There has been a noticeable bullishness in her subsequent statements which suggests that she now understands this is what the Taiwanese people want from her. This change in circumstances will have renewed her optimism over seeking re-election in 2020.

If she does so, there are always likely to be a few in the DPP who are tempted to challenge her. Two of these could well have been Su and Chen. By promoting them into her cabinet, she is minimizing the risk of them challenging her and also ensuring that if her administration does anything else that proves as unpopular as the pension reforms, they will be tarred by the same brush she is. Their promotion means there is only really William Lai who is a viable alternative DPP candidate and he is already marked by his time as Premier.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Is Tsai Ing-wen (C) trying to eliminate potential political opponents such as William Lai (L) and Su Tseng-chang?

Which brings us to the last, and frankly most likely reason why Su and Chen have been elevated to the roles of Premier and Vice Premier respectively. The DPP is also rapidly running out of talent.

There have been frequent resignations and sackings from senior government positions throughout Tsai’s term of office. With the resignation of her entire cabinet earlier this month, the fact is that there were not too many obvious names in the mix to take their place.

If Tsai really was the bold and forthright leader she is trying to present herself as being at the moment, she might have taken the opportunity to promote some of the party’s young blood.

There are plenty of talented and passionate young voices within the DPP who were politicized by incidents like the 2014 Sunflower Movement and anger at Chinese interference in Taiwanese domestic affairs. People like Vincent Chao (趙怡翔), recently appointed as head of the political division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington amid a storm of partisan controversy, and Keelung Mayor Lin Yu-chang (林右昌) could have offered a bright new future for the DPP, whether Tsai continued as their leader beyond 2020 or not.

But the truth is that President Tsai is not that kind of leader. She is a centrist, conservative with a small ‘c’, and inherently cautious. That is her personality and the fact is it drips through into her politics. She is neither bold enough nor strong enough to take such a step and most people in her party know it.

It was therefore inevitable that it would be familiar faces who benefitted from the mass resignation of the cabinet. And so it proved to be.

But in hindsight, Tsai might see the decision as being a bad error of judgement. By promoting the likes of Su and Chen she is rewarding failure. She is handing power and influence to people who failed her in the nine-in-one elections and have proved that they are not capable of commanding the popular vote.

She is condemning Taiwan to more of the same, a continuation of the status quo at a time when people are yearning for change. The popular reaction to her uncharacteristic response to the Xi speech shows they want strength. The election of the likes of Han Kuo-yu shows they want change.

These appointments gave President Tsai the chance to set her party up nicely for a strong run-in to the 2020 presidential elections. But she has missed that opportunity and by sticking with the tried and tested, she might just have condemned her party to another period of opposition.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The News Lens.

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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