From the moment William Lai (賴清德) registered in the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential primary to challenge President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) re-election bid on March 18, tensions began to divide the party and its top brass was left scrambling to attempt to contain the damage.

His entrance into the race appeared to have caught many of the top people in the party by surprise, including key people in his own famously disciplined New Tide factional wing of the party. This surprise was compounded by what many consider the sheer audacity of the act: It is rare to challenge a sitting incumbent in a primary, and unprecedented to challenge a sitting president. Even more shocking to some is that William Lai had only just a few months prior headed President Tsai’s cabinet as her premier – and, as premier, he had stated he would support President Tsai in the upcoming 2020 election.

For many in the top echelons of the DPP, this – as they perceived it – act of betrayal to party unity and the president was unconscionable. The party swiftly moved to delay the primary – simply an opinion poll conducted among a sample of Taiwanese residents, regardless of party affiliation – for a few days to buy time for a hastily convened group of five top party figures to try and broker a compromise while the president was on an overseas trip. 34, or half of the sitting DPP legislative caucus issued a declaration of support for the president within 48 hours. Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) announced he would not run in 2020, leaving the VP slot vacant. Calls for party unity echoed through the halls of power and throughout the pro-DPP partisan media. Polls hastily held “proved” (polls being widely considered politically influenced or somewhat manipulated, though not entirely fabricated, in Taiwan) that a Tsai-Lai ticket would be more formidable than either candidacy alone.


Credit: CNA

William Lai is taking on Tsai Ing-wen in a fiery DPP primary.

William Lai was having none of it, and firmly stood his ground in challenging Tsai. He had been planning this for some time, including writing a book and launching a book tour to accompany his candidacy. It is likely that some people had had advance notice, including Taiwan Brain Trust chair Koo Kwang-ming (辜寬敏), who organized a poll in the weeks prior and released it on the day of Lai’s announcement “showing” strong public support for Lai.

Though some were surprised at Lai’s challenging the president in the 2020 primary, the fact that he was eventually going to run for president was hardly in doubt. A popular ex-Tainan mayor, Lai was plucked out of that job to take the second most powerful position in the national government by the president after her first premier, Lin Chuan (林全), took the fall for unpopular domestic policies and missteps. Though Lai’s popularity dropped while he was premier – a common occupational hazard – he remained significantly more popular than the president in polling across the political spectrum. Following a crushing landslide defeat for the DPP in last November’s local elections, Lai immediately tried to resign, but was convinced to stay on until mid-January to ease the transition for a replacement. Tsai resigned the position of party chair to take responsibility for the loss, turning over the party leadership to the largely unknown Cho Jung-tai (卓榮泰), who won out over a candidate considered more pro-Lai.

In the aftermath of that overwhelming electoral defeat, political rumblings inside and outside the party put pressure on the president, though how much of a role they played in Lai’s decision to run is unclear. After all, Lai had written an entire book prior to his entering the primary, which suggests a long lead time. Regardless, internal rumblings against the president broke out into the open on Jan. 3, when “An Open Letter to President Tsai – Please Do Not Seek Re-election,” was published by various newspapers and signed by Presidential Office adviser Wu Li-pei (吳澧培), former 1996 DPP presidential nominee Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), former Academia Sinica president Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲) and Reverend Kao Chun-ming (高俊明). Peng and Kao are revered giants of the resistance to martial law and all four are deep Taiwan nationalists who support establishing a formal “Republic of Taiwan.” In the letter, they expressed dissatisfaction with Tsai’s performance, especially over the issue of Taiwan’s national identity and sovereignty in the face of increasing threats from China, and demanded that she not only declare she wouldn’t run for re-election, they also demanded that she hand administrative power to the premier – who, at the time, was none other than William Lai.

If the old guard independence stalwarts had hoped their letter would generate momentum and pressure on Tsai by portraying her as weak, their attempt turned out to be spectacularly poorly timed. Just one day before their letter went public, Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered a speech insisting that Taiwan “must and will be” be “reunified” with Chinese Communist Party-led (CCP) China, not ruling out the use of force and further going on to equate the so-called “1992 consensus” with the “one country, two systems” approach that is rapidly eroding Hong Kong’s freedoms. This position was in direct contravention of that held by the Taiwan opposition party the Kuomintang (KMT), which has upheld the “1992 consensus” as the basis for relations with their CCP counterparts by defining the “1992 consensus” as being that both sides agree there is “one China,” with each side having their own interpretation of what that means. (The CCP only ever agreed with the “there is one China” part, never the “different interpretations” part of the KMT formulation.) Within hours of Xi’s threats, President Tsai gave a forceful reply, reiterating her firm defense of Taiwan and Taiwan’s democratic system. The KMT was put on the defensive, having to publicly denounce Xi’s equating of “one country, two systems” with the “1992 consensus”. Tsai’s strong response was popular, earning her a solid bump in the polls.

It had seemed that Tsai had regained some momentum, and that the DPP would enter the next election more-or-less as unified as the party could be. The DPP fundamentally owes its existence and identity to its early opposition to KMT imposed martial law and one-party rule (which ended in the early 1990s), and even today opposition to the KMT – and power – remain the unifying forces that hold the party together. The DPP is neither right nor left wing, neither liberal nor conservative – but rather a coalition of all of these (with, for example, Tsai leaning toward the more liberal end on social issues and Lai toward the more conservative end, with both center-right economically). The party is unified on being strong on Taiwanese identity by comparison with the KMT, but within the DPP there are those who are taidu and want to change the name of the country officially to the “Republic of Taiwan,” and those who are huadu and want to keep the official name “Republic of China,” largely due to the CCP enacting a law in China in 2005 to officially declare war if the name is changed to “Taiwan,” rather than out of any loyalty to a Chinese identity. (By comparison, there are many in the KMT who do have such loyalties.) The old Taiwanese nationalist taidu stalwarts “open letter” was an attempt to openly tip the balance of power from the current huadu party leaders to the taidu camp.

Lai’s run has once again brought the tensions between the taidu and huadu supporters to the surface. Lai is by many considered to be more strongly taidu, in spite of publicly insisting that Taiwan is already an independent nation under the name “Republic of China”: in other words, taking the same huadu stance as President Tsai. Regardless of the substance, many of those who support taidu are behind Lai, perhaps expecting a more robust and forceful defense of Taiwan’s sovereignty in the face of threats by the CCP government in China.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Happier times? Tsai Ing-wen (L) and William Lai appear at a 2017 news conference.

Considering the very little difference between their stated views on the issue, this may come down more to an issue of style rather than substance. Tsai is soft spoken and is a very experienced diplomat who chooses her words very carefully. This has won her enthusiastic support in Washington and Tokyo, and her firm-but-careful style has stymied attempts by the CCP to shift the narrative to tensions being Taiwan’s fault – a strategy they successfully achieved during the previous DPP administration of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), who was less careful in his choice of words and actions. This careful, diplomatic consideration of all the factors at play and fine distinctions, however, doesn’t play well to the deep taidu base, who would prefer a more full-throated assertion of Taiwanese nationalism. Additionally, some of the more socially conservative elder party members, such as Taiwan Brain Trust’s Koo, have questioned the suitability of “people wearing skirts” in a leadership role.

Lai, who refers to himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence” – by which he at other times makes clear is the already independent Republic of China – is putting sovereignty and the threat of China front and center in his campaign. He is calling for the legislature to pass an “anti-annexation” law to make it illegal for a future government to agree to be annexed by China, and repeatedly warn that the 2020 elections are about keeping Taiwan free and avoiding the fate of Tibet or Hong Kong – both of which were handed over to China in treaties whose terms the CCP government chose to ignore.

Lai remains more popular than Tsai in every poll conducted among the general population, regardless of the political slant of the polling entity, with the exception of some recent polls showing Tsai in the lead among a subset of DPP voters. The doctor-turned-politician has built a solid reputation as a pragmatic, constructive leader, and was extremely popular in his two terms as mayor of Tainan. His impatience with the party brass trying to obstruct his path is growing clear. After initially implementing a short delay to accommodate the president’s overseas trip, they changed the rules of the game yet again to delay the primary polling by over a month until late May – openly stating they wanted more time to try and broker a deal in the name of party unity. The party leadership, though, has little to offer: Lai has already held the second most powerful office as premier; vice president is, in practice, a less powerful office. He leads in all public opinion polls, and if the primary were to be held now, he would likely be the DPP candidate. There have been growing cries against the party’s “undemocratic” treatment of Lai, with former Minister of Defense Michael Tsai (蔡明憲) leaving in protest saying: “The belief in fair, rules-based competition had always been part of the DPP’s core values,” newspaper editorials on the pan-Green side slamming the party and protests held. Lai complained that, in a meeting with President Tsai, “there was no discussion on how to conduct a primary, only requests that I quit.”

While Lai’s supporters are furious at the rules being changed – and changed again – many in the party are furious with Lai for running and threatening party unity. While Lai is more popular with the general public, Tsai has significantly higher support within the party according to several recent polls. In countries like the United States, where popularity within the party is key to winning the nomination, such a scenario would not be playing out. But the DPP chose polling among the general public on the theory it would be more democratic and would choose a stronger candidate. Now the problem with this method has become clear.

Most presidents in Taiwan’s short democratic history have been very low in the polls at this point in their presidency, and all have bounced back to win a second term once they campaigned in earnest – so Tsai may be stronger on election day in January 2020 than she looks in the polls now if history is any guide. If Lai were to win the popular poll in the primary, but Tsai retained the support of the majority of party members, this disconnect could lead many DPP voters to stay home on election day next January. Additionally, having a sitting president and a different presidential candidate of the same party would be awkward, and with Lai having “usurped” the role in the eyes of the president’s camp, this would make it hard to coordinate between the two. This means that Lai could end up campaigning against – or at least frequently finding himself at odds with – a government ruled by his own party. Tsai, though expressing her confidence at winning the primary poll, questioned the validity of using polling in the primary: “If we continue polling, divisions will split the party, because competition brings attacks, which are harmful to unity.”

While both Lai and Tsai have been studiously not directly attacking the other, there have been many statements issued by both studded with poison barbs. Tsai, when asked if she would support Lai if he won the primary, said of her erstwhile trusted premier: “If Lai hopes to win support, he must prove himself to be supportable and trustworthy,” reminding Lai that “honesty is the basic requirement for any politician serving as a national leader.” Lai, noting that Tsai has continued to refuse to state she would support him as a candidate should he win the primary fair-and-square, but only speaks of his joining the ticket as vice president, commented: “Emphasizing how someone should be a vice president during a primary is an election strategy not worth pursuing,” and “that is against the spirit of democracy.”

There are signs that the DPP is feeling the heat over their changing of the rules to blunt the Lai candidacy, recently coming out and saying they would continue on the current path with no more changes to the timetable. There may yet be changes to how, and in what format, polling is held – which, if it comes to pass, will further the acrimony.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Fractures within the DPP are playing out publicly during the party's presidential primary.

The way this has played out has weakened the DPP’s chances in 2020. The bitterness of Tsai’s supporters at Lai’s “betrayal” on the one hand, and the bitterness of Lai’s supporters at the game playing and rule changing by the party in the primary make unity between the camps going forward problematic. Regardless of who wins the primary, there will be problems.

If Lai wins the primary, he’ll likely have to contend with a party that a majority of supported Tsai and a Tsai administration in office during his campaign. If Tsai wins, Lai’s supporters will – with some justification – suggest that it would have been Lai’s victory if the rules hadn’t been changed, rigging the primary against him. Restoring party unity after the primary will be a monumental task as things stand now, and there is potential for direct attacks or dirty tricks to originate from either – or both – sides between now and the primary being conducted, further poisoning the DPP internally.

Currently only elderly, strong Taiwanese nationalists have bolted the party or been in open revolt: These are people who’ve devoted their lives to a Republic of Taiwan, and want to see it happen in their lifetime. But with the vast diversity and range of left-to-right, conservative-to-liberal views and the tension between the huadu and taidu camps, there is considerable scope for fracturing in the party: This is a big part of why the party brass are so desperate to keep unity and tried to head off Lai’s run. However, that strategy is beginning to backfire, coming across as heavy handed and undemocratic to Lai supporters and the public at large. But, increasingly, it is the public at large and a segment of the strong Taiwan nationalist taidu base that are at odds with a large swathe of the DPP, which wants to maintain unity.

In a statement issued on April 25 by a coalition of academics and civic groups put it: "We appeal to President Tsai and former Premier Lai to work together and fight for survival of a local administration at this difficult time when the popularity of potential KMT contenders Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) and Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. (Foxconn) Chairman Terry Gou (郭台銘) is rising rapidly in Taiwan," the statement said. Lai, in response, said that anyone who thinks holding a primary will cause division in the party is wrong, and that the purpose of the primary is so the DPP can field the strongest candidate in 2020. With the bad blood already in the waters between the two camps, it may be too late for either now.

Editor: Nick Aspinwall@TheNewsLens

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