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Taiwan's president: "the way of Tsai" part II, rise to reign over the DPP

With the DPP mired in defeat, infighting, and public hostility, newcomer Tsai Ing-wen boldly seized control of the party

Taiwan's president: "the way of Tsai" part II, rise to reign over the DPP

DPP Chair Tsai Ing-wen on Aug. 26, 2015

(CNA photo)

“If the enemy leaves a door open, you must rush in.”

–Sun Tzu (孫子)

In 2008, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was in what was probably its darkest hour. Out of the wreckage an unlikely candidate, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), became the first woman to chair a major political party in Taiwan — a surprising turn of events for someone who had only joined the party four years earlier, had been an official in a Kuomintang (KMT)-led administration eight years earlier, and didn’t have the backing of a major faction.

Her opponent in the race for chairmanship, Koo Kwang-ming (辜寬敏), said that the party’s problems should be dealt with by men and questioned the suitability of letting a “single woman” take care of them. Appropriately, the first problem this “single woman” dealt with was Koo.

Today, Tsai’s dominance of both the DPP and Taiwanese politics is taken for granted, but running for chair in 2008 was a move of breathtaking boldness for a relatively low-ranking party figure. But with the party in total disarray and more senior party heavyweights (who likely saw the post as a poisoned chalice at the time) not in the running, Tsai saw an opportunity, seized it, and she and her party never looked back.

In part I of this series, we looked at Tsai's entry into politics as part of the Lee Tung-hui (李登輝) administration and her earlier ties that could easily have led her into another KMT administration had that party won in 2000. However, in that election, the pan-blue vote was split between KMT nominee Lien Chan (連戰) and former KMT rising star-turned-independent James Soong (宋楚瑜), who would later go on to found the People First Party (PFP).

The DPP’s Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) eked out a narrow victory against a divided opposition to win the presidency in 2000, ending half a century of Taiwan's top post being held by the KMT. The situation was tense, and fears of a possible coup by a military still believed to be loyal to the KMT led Chen to install retired general and KMT member Tang Fei (唐飛) as his first premier.

After serving in the previous administration, Tsai was tapped by the incoming leadership to chair the Mainland Affairs Council, the diplomatic arm handling relations with China. In spite of this being a frosty period in cross-strait relations and a very sensitive role, she held the post for Chen’s entire first term and survived three premiers and Cabinet reshuffles along the way, which speaks to the confidence in her ability.

Chen won re-election in 2004 by a tiny margin against a united Lien Chan-James Soong ticket, with many crediting that tiny margin to sympathy votes after a failed assassination attempt against Chen and his vice president that to this day draws conspiracy theories. It wasn’t an auspicious start to his second term, but it was a victory nonetheless.

In that same election, Tsai became a member of the DPP and was selected as a party-list legislator whose seat was apportioned by vote percentages allotted to the party rather than by running to win a constituency. She was a lawmaker for less than a year, however, before then-Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) brought her back into the Cabinet as vice-premier (Su serves Tsai today as her premier).

When Su was replaced, Tsai was also out as part of the Cabinet reshuffle, and she joined the private sector as chair of TaiMedBiologics, a biotech firm. The KMT leveled allegations that during her stint as vice premier she had used her position to award contracts to TaiMedBiologics, but she was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.

The Chen years were chaotic in many regards, both inside the party and externally — with Washington viewing any disturbance in the cross-strait status quo as inevitably Chen’s fault, sometimes with reason but more often not. The Americans wanted stability and viewed Chen as an irritant in their goal of strengthening commercial ties with the huge Chinese market and, as they incorrectly expected at the time, the eventual deepening of reforms leading to more civil society involvement in the running of the communist giant.

Inside the DPP, big egos and their factions were riding high and constantly battling for supremacy, with their internecine wars often spilling into the public and splashing all over the press, damaging the party’s image and cohesiveness. Stagnating wages, a debt crisis, a distant Washington, and DPP internal bickering all led to a general sense of malaise and misdirection in the public.

Then things got much worse. Corruption allegations began to swirl around Chen, his wife, and his inner circle. Large “red shirt” protests against the Chen administration called for him to step down, organized not by the KMT but rather former DPP chair and martial law-era political prisoner Shih Ming-teh (施明德).

With Chen mired in the corruption scandal and protests, he pivoted from his earlier caution and unilaterally tried to remove many symbols of the Republic of China and the KMT era as his second term came to a close in order to deliver the goods to the DPP base. However, this furthered distrust in the party among the general public, many of whom found the moves unnecessarily divisive and adding to the sense of chaos and instability (his moves would probably have been more popular today).

As DPP chair, Chen led the party into the 2008 elections, which went very badly for team green. They lost a referendum, won only 27 of 113 seats in the legislature (the KMT won 81), and lost the presidency to Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT in a landslide.

The KMT was successfully portraying themselves as the calm, competent, rational stewards of the economy and responsible managers of cross-strait and foreign relations and the DPP as chaotic, incompetent, irrational, economically unsound and irresponsible in relations with China and Washington. This clearly left a strong impression on Tsai, and in the next part of this series we’ll examine how she led her party to flip all those assumptions on their heads.

As has generally been the case when a major party in Taiwan is mired in failure, the major players often stay in the background instead of bidding for leadership, preferring to let others take the blame for the hard choices and changes that need to be made. The problems facing the DPP at the time must have seemed both intractable and likely to persist.

Having spent the worst part of the crisis of Chen’s second term in the private sector, extensive and varied experience in government, a reputation for competence and not being a member of any of the factions plaguing the party were all positives for Tsai. It was because of her political insight, however, that she saw all this clearly as well as the opportunity before her.

On May 20, 2008 — the day of Ma Ying-jeou's presidential inauguration — Tsai Ing-wen formally took the reins of the DPP.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (, and former chairman of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.