On Monday, former Premier William Lai (賴清德) announced his entry into Taiwan’s presidential race. A report in The News Lens, citing poll data, suggested that President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) chances of winning re-election are “as slim as ever.”

However, a wave of support for Tsai among prominent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) politicians is suggesting otherwise.

Lai, who served as premier in the Tsai administration until January 2019, entered the DPP primary on Monday, a surprising move given Tsai’s recent poise in the face of cross-Strait tensions. Despite snickers of Lai running prior to the start of 2019, when Tsai’s popularity was low following her party’s brutal November nine-in-one election losses, Tsai was able to regain support by responding firmly to a coercive speech on Taiwan made on Jan. 2 by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

William Lai (L), Tsai Ing-wen (C) and then-Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (R) pictured on Apr. 15, 2015.

Lai’s announcement created a dilemma for the DPP. He challenges Tsai from the left, having pronounced his support for an independent Taiwan. By contrast, Tsai’s careful handling of cross-Strait relations despite early Chinese pressure in her term has earned her the applause of U.S. decision makers and Taiwan experts.

It seems that Lai’s ambition for Presidency has gotten to an unpopular start. Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wen-tsan (鄭文燦) and Keelung Mayor Lin Yu-chang (林右昌), both prominent DPP figures, explicitly supported Tsai for president during Cheng’s visit to Washington, DC to address the Taiwanese community earlier in March. Both have announced their shock and uncertainty after Lai’s announcement. Secretary General Chen Chu (陳菊) and Vice-Premier Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) have both announced their explicit support for Tsai. Hsinchu Mayor Lin Chih-chien (林智堅) has also expressed his surprise and has called for unity within the party. These top DPP officials are all relatively popular, with Secretary General Chen previously a longtime mayor of Kaohsiung.

It is important to note how uncertain poll data can be in Taiwan and how deeper levels of party networking in Taiwan affect political races.

In addition, Senior Advisor to the President Su Beng (史明), a supporter of Taiwanese independence, has announced his support for Tsai. 22 Legislative Yuan members have also announced their support for Tsai in a press conference. High-profile Taipei Council member Wang Shih-chien (王世堅) even called upon Lai to quit the former New Tide faction. (DPP factions have existed unofficially since 2006, when the party voted to disband all official factions.) According to a report from Storm Media, Lai has not remained in contact with other members of his faction, and his team is made up of a group of relatively obscure figures from Tainan.

Many in the DPP had previously looked towards Lai, an explicit supporter of independence, as a future president. Lai has called himself “a political worker for Taiwan independence,” although he has maintained that he already believes Taiwan to be an independent, sovereign nation.

However, his level of popularity and support will likely diminish in the coming months. Though charismatic and popular, he has not released any platforms yet besides pardoning former President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), who is in jail for corruption, and draws mostly from his previous experience as premier and mayor of Tainan. Despite having helped DPP candidate Kuo Kuo-wen (郭國文) win the Legislative Yuan by-election in Tainan on March 16, Lai’s heavy support for Kuo only yielded a 3 percent victory over Hsieh Long-Jie (謝龍介) of the Kuomintang (KMT), a known critic of Lai. Kuo is one of the few to openly support Lai. Even he was shocked when Lai announced to run, and made a gesture of apology towards President Tsai.


Credit: CNA

William Lai may struggle to find support outside of his base in Tainan.

Without an elected office now or any political position, Lai’s influence within the DPP is likely going to be limited. His registration process also underwent some hiccups as several team members were independents without DPP membership. The speed at which many DPP members, including many popular figures and senior DPP members, have rallied behind Tsai is indicative of how Taiwan may respond to Lai’s candidacy.

Though Premier Su’s faction and members of the cabinet have not expressed their alignment, those politicians would likely refrain from explicitly supporting Lai while serving Tsai. DPP Chairman Cho Jung-tai (卓榮泰) is also a supporter of Tsai and recently won an election against Tsai critic You Ying-lung (游盈隆).

It is important to note that Lai’s decision is one that goes against political norms. Despite a political system that is becoming more like the one in Washington, with the KMT offering a diverse roster of potential primary candidates, Lai has broken with this trend by challenging an incumbent who explicitly announced her intention to run for a second term in an interview with CNN last month. He also reportedly deferred calls from within the New Tide faction to not run for president.

The speed at which many DPP members, including many popular figures and senior DPP members, have rallied behind Tsai is indicative of how Taiwan may respond to Lai’s candidacy.

In any case, Lai’s surprise announcement campaign for President seems to be a massive surprise to most DPP members, and the resulting uncertainty has certainly not worked in his favor. His campaign may be a sign of a bustling democracy in Taiwan, but it is also being perceived and portrayed as one against DPP party unity. Despite Lai’s previous popularity, he will likely face a resource and support gap outside of his party base in Tainan.

Monday’s report in The News Lens outlines how Lai continues to outperform Tsai in public opinion polls. As Taiwan watchers, however, it is important to note how uncertain poll data can be in Taiwan and how deeper levels of party networking in Taiwan affect political races. The DPP political network is very closely knit, and early power plays at the top level will likely work against Lai as he begins to articulate his platform.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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