The 2020 elections are already shaping up to be the most important in Taiwan’s short democratic history.
With nine months still remaining until polling day, much of the discussion at the moment is revolving around who the opposition KMT party will put forward as a candidate.
With their dangerous narrative about peace treaties and closer ties to Communist China, which is still threatening to annex Taiwan by force, and the prospect of the hugely controversial and bizarrely popular Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) seeking the KMT nomination, many see the pan-blue nomination as being where all the political drama will play out.
But, the ruling DPP’s choice of nomination is no less important and potentially no less dramatic. It is slightly unusual that we are seeing the DPP going through a nomination process at all. After, there is an incumbent DPP President who is still in her first term of office and, in normal circumstances, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) would expect to receive the DPP nomination unopposed. But these are not normal times.
The case for William Lai
The main challenge that she faces comes from one of her former Premier’s Lai Ching‑te (賴清德), better known by his English name, William Lai. Lai was a hugely popular Mayor of Tainan City before being appointed as Premier of Taiwan in 2017. He held the role for around eighteen months and proved popular with voters around the country. His satisfaction ratings consistently outstripped President Tsai’s.
In the wake of the nine-in-one elections, Lai tendered his resignation only for President Tsai to urge him to stay on. But it proved to only be a temporary stay of execution and two months later, in early January, Lai resigned along with the entire Cabinet.
From that point on, Lai was muted as a possible challenger to President Tsai for the DPP Presidential nomination but many questioned the wisdom in challenging an incumbent President for the role. But, on March 18, Lai submitted his nomination at the DPP Headquarters in Taipei.
It had been feared that his candidacy could lead to a split in the DPP party at the worst possible moment. But so far, the process has been good natured and respectful between Tsai and Lai, which is in the interests of both candidates and the DPP party as a whole. This has to continue.
Voices in both camps have expressed the importance of presenting a united front in the face of the threat posed to both the party and Taiwan as a whole by the opposition KMTs reckless cross-straits agenda.
With three weeks to go until the DPP nomination is announced, it is to be hoped that this style of campaigning continues. But it is also crucial that William Lai is given a fair crack of the whip as a primary candidate, both for the future of the DPP and the future of Taiwan’s democracy.
It would be understandable that influential figures from the US and elsewhere would be reluctant to rock the boat by supporting another DPP candidate. Lai’s reputation as an outspoken pro-independence politician may also raise concerns that he could push China into an even more hostile and aggressive stance over cross-straits relations and so upset the delicate status-quo still further.
But the truth is that Lai is an experienced and moderate politician who is far too smart to take any reckless steps that could place Taiwan at greater risk from Chinese aggression. Indeed, his decision to run is based solely on his concerns that if the DPP lose the Presidential election and control of the Legislative Yuan, the KMT could do irreparable damage to Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty.
He has made his own views on cross-straits relations clear. Far from declaring independence, Lai has promised to seek common ground and dialogue with Communist China. He has pledged to try and move the narrative away from unification and independence and work together with China on things like infectious diseases and natural disasters where both sides have a common goal.
Lai’s views are that Taiwan is already a de-facto independent country and therefore there is no need for a potentially provocative declaration of independence. Instead, he has pledged to be a fierce defender of Taiwan’s interests and Taiwan’s democracy.
Any concerns the US and other countries may have about Lai has a potential President should be assuaged by this rational stance. Indeed, his stated foreign policies and his actions while Premier should encourage the USA that he can support their own strategic objectives not only in South-East Asia and the South China Sea but also other regional areas such as the Pacific and even India.
A free and fair primary process is vital
Ultimately, it is democracy that this whole primary process boils down to. Taiwan is a proudly democratic nation. Its democracy was hard-earned and is held up as an example for the rest of South-East Asia to follow.
The Presidential primaries are an important part of that democratic process and it is important that the process is allowed to proceed without undue interference from either internal or external parties.
The USA must allow Taiwan to make its own choice of Presidential candidates without trying to influence the process in favor of their preferred candidate.
Equally, the DPP to must do everything to ensure the Presidential Primary process is free and fair. As the incumbent President, Tsai is clearly at an advantage and could potentially use the party apparatus and administration to her advantage if she so wished.
She must resist the temptation to do this, even if it does adversely affect her own primary campaign. Equally, existing DPP officials should resist the temptation to choose their preferred candidate based on pre-existing loyalties and tribalism. The primary process should be about policy and deciding which candidate has the best chance of winning the 2020 Presidential race.
As we noted at the beginning, the 2020 Presidential elections are shaping up to be the most important in Taiwan’s short democratic history. This is about something far more important that one political legacy. It is about the future of Taiwan as a sovereign democratic nation.
This is something that matters as much to President Tsai as it does to William Lai and all other Taiwanese people. It is essential that the democratic process is allowed to play out properly if it is going to have a future in Taiwan at all.
Decision made on policies not pre-existing loyalties and cliques.