What you need to know
Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) declared her run for Taiwan's 2020 presidential election just minutes before Terry Gou dropped out of the race, a decision that shocked the Taiwanese media and public. Who is she and why is she joining the presidential race now?
A wildcard has just entered Taiwan’s 2020 presidential race. While international media focused on Foxconn tycoon Terry Gou’s surprising decision to drop out of the presidential bid, an unexpected candidate declared her run just minutes before Gou’s announcement: Taiwan’s former Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮).
Lu accepted the nomination of the newly established political party Formosa Alliance (喜樂島聯盟) and registered her candidacy just a few hours before the deadline on September 17.
While it’s easy for some to dismiss anyone running outside of the two major parties as a fringe candidate, Lu’s candidacy deserves more attention.
Who Is Annette Lu?
Lu, 75, served as Taiwan’s vice president under the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration between 2000 and 2008. But it would be wrong to describe her purely in the context of a former VP, a position generally seen as powerless. Older Taiwanese would remember Lu as one of the most prominent pro-democracy activists from the 1970s and 1980s, when Taiwan was under the authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang (KMT).
During Taiwan’s martial law era, the young Annette Lu graduated from Harvard University Law School and returned to Taiwan to begin her career as a political and social activist. Later on, Lu often described herself as the earliest advocate of Taiwan’s feminism movement, a claim that few would dispute today.
Lu’s democratic activism soon put her head-on against KMT’s one-party rule. During the 1979 “Formosa Magazine incident”, Lu and numerous activists were arrested, tortured, and convicted with trumped-up charges of “sedition” and “rioting.” She spent almost six years in prison as a result.
Though Lu was not among the “First 18” that founded the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 1986, she soon joined the party and became an important figure. She was elected the Taoyuan County Magistrate in 1997, and then elected vice president after Chen picked her as his running mate in the 2000 presidential election.
The position of vice president has little real power in Taiwan’s political system, but Lu made use of her position to advocate for a wide range of issues such as women and minority rights as well as Taiwan’s soft power in the international sphere. Since leaving office in 2008, Lu continued to be an outspoken, albeit unorthodox voice in Taiwanese media, sometimes provoking the ire of DPP and its supporters.
While often portrayed by media and critics as a political figure of the past detached from Taipei’s power dynamics, Lu’s name still commands a degree of respect among the generation that had struggled for Taiwan’s democracy not that long ago – something that even President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) cannot easily forget and dismiss today.
Maysing Yang (楊黃美幸), former vice president of Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, told The News Lens that Annette Lu spent her young age fighting for democracy on the streets and in prison while President Tsai — who also received elite education overseas — was by all accounts a quiet and apolitical student and academic during her early career.
Although Tsai also grew up amid intense social upheaval and pro-democracy struggle (known as the Tangwai movement), she was not known to have participated in any political activism in Taiwan or overseas, nor had she written any pro-democracy pieces during that sensitive era. Tsai only entered politics as an established government bureaucrat in the 1990s.
Why Is Annette Lu Running for the Presidency Anyway?
Among casual observers, there’s a tendency to dismiss Lu as nothing more than a paper candidate or criticize her for “splitting” votes from President Tsai next January. This narrative is problematic for several reasons.
Lu is neither a particularly outspoken advocate for Taiwan’s de jure independence nor a staunch hawk against China, though many of her close advisers are. When it comes to the future of Taiwan, Lu has consistently advocated “peace and neutrality” similar to the Switzerland model. This means keeping Taiwan “permanently neutral” in issues like the South China Sea disputes and the U.S.-China rivalry, while maintaining a strong-enough national defense that would free Taiwan from dependency on U.S. military intervention if China ever comes knocking the door.
Few Taiwanese politicians, mainstream or fringe, have embraced Lu’s neutrality idea. It is also considered an anomaly at a time when the United States and China are embroiled in an ever-escalating strategic competition, where countries and political figures in the regions are increasingly pressured to take a side. But to portray Lu as a pro-Taiwan independence fundamentalist is simply not consistent with reality.
There is also little evidence that Lu’s entry into the race would “split” votes from Tsai in favor of KMT’s Han Kuo-yu. The latest Apple Daily poll shows that Lu’s small number of supporters came from an equal split between voters identified as pan-blue (KMT) and pan-green (DPP). Furthermore, the poll shows that most of Lu’s support came from median voters who self-identified as independents or indicated only marginal support for either KMT or DPP.
Isn’t She Just a Fringe Candidate With No Chance?
In the same Apple Daily poll, Lu was polled at 4.7 percent against Tsai’s 37.7 percent and Han’s 27.5 percent. It would be far-fetched to say Lu has a realistic chance at winning the presidency, but 4.7 percent is a sizeable figure that should not be easily dismissed.
Lu’s run for the presidency could boost her party’s candidates in the Legislative Yuan because the 2020 general election will see voting of both presidential and legislative candidates at the same time. If past elections provided any indication, many voters preferred to vote for district legislative candidate from the political party of their favored presidential candidate. In the past decade, this phenomenon has produced a strong incentive for minor parties to field a strong presidential candidate to boost their legislative candidates in the race. James Soong (宋楚瑜) of the People First Party, for example, ran in both 2012 and 2016 presidential elections despite having little chance of winning.
Even if a party doesn’t win any seat in the district elections, it could still hope to win some of the 34 party-list seats, which are distributed based on the party’s total votes received in the district elections nationally. To do so, a party needs to receive at least 5-percent votes nationwide, which now seems within reach for the Formosa Alliance thanks to Lu’s candidacy. That could translate to two or even three party-list legislators and would secure the party’s position as a minor player in Taiwan’s politics.
Who Are Lu’s Advisers? How Are they Different From the Current Tsai Administration?
As a DPP outlier who never had major factional support or financial backer, Lu has for years kept a team of unofficial advisers consisting of prominent Taiwanese scholars, policy experts, and activists. Most of them kept clear of DPP’s internal factions and chose to support Lu out of their shared convictions rather than to seek political patronage. Some of them are:
Wong Ming-Hsien (翁明賢), professor and director of Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies, is one of the most respected academics in Taiwan’s foreign policy and national security. He is held in high regard across Taiwan’s political aisles and is frequently cited by Taiwanese and international media for his expert comment on Taiwan’s foreign affairs and strategic issues.
Michael M. Tsai (蔡明憲), a former Minister of National Defense under President Chen Shui-bian and a lecturer at Taiwan’s National Defense University. Tsai has been a prominent “hawk” on defense issues, consistently advocating hardline approach in building Taiwan’s military and deterring China’s military aggression. In recent years Tsai has emerged as a harsh critic of President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration, repeatedly criticized her team for what he described as gross incompetence on national security and a weak strategic posture in facing growing threats from Beijing.
Yang Sen-hong (楊憲宏), a radio host and also the founder and president of Taiwan Association for China Human Rights (TAHCR), keeps close relations with Chinese pro-democracy dissidents, Christian rights advocates, Tibetan and Uyghur activists. In recent years Yang has become bitterly critical of President Tsai as she’s perceived to be hesitant in supporting China's human rights cause, examples such as Tsai’s alleged blocking of Dalai Lama from visiting Taiwan and her refusal to pass an asylum law that would allow dissidents from China and Hong Kong to settle in Taiwan.
What Is Happening Next?
Per Taiwan’s election rules, registered presidential candidates will have to gather a substantial number of signatures – a minimum of 280,384 this year – on or before November 2 to have a chance of appearing on the ballots next January. This will be the first challenge for Lu and Formosa Alliance. If they cannot reach that number, Lu will not be a candidate anyway.
Another issue is that Lu is technically still a member of the DPP because she never officially terminated her membership, even though she has publicly declared to have “quit” the party in 2018.
“I love the DPP membership card so much that, it would break my heart to return it,” Lu said in a recent press conference.
DPP party rules prohibit members from running against the party’s incumbent nominee. Such member in theory should be disciplined or expelled by the party. Because DPP already nominated Tsai to run for re-election, Lu’s membership is on the spotlight again.
Should DPP opt to expel Lu, one of its earliest founders and a former vice president, it would certainly not be favorable to President Tsai, who has yet to repair the party’s deep internal division following the bitter presidential primary race between her and former Premier William Lai (賴清德) earlier this year.
According to Lu, DPP chairperson Cho Jung-tai (卓榮泰) had personally visited her in a failed attempt to persuade her to withdraw candidacy.
“I still hope President Tsai will win re-election, if she can start listening to other people’s complaints about her.” Lu told the media after Cho’s visit, “I am not President Tsai’s enemy, I am her best friend.”
Disclaimer: The author of this story was invited by Annette Lu to join a week-long delegation to the United States in March 2019. All travel expenses were paid for by the author himself except for meals sponsored by Taiwanese American community and Taiwan’s Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington D.C. and New York City, which were hosted in honor of Lu’s visit.
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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