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Taiwan's president: 'the way of Tsai' part III, leading the DPP into the sun

Tsai Ing-wen transformed a party facing its darkest hour into a formidable force

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Tsai Ing-wen's campaign headquarters in 2015.  

Tsai Ing-wen's campaign headquarters in 2015.   (Wikimedia Commons photo)

As the final election results came in, the newly elected president must have been feeling elated, having won a landslide victory and led the electoral slate to an overwhelming majority in the legislature. The president was a colossus on the political stage, widely respected and admired by a population filled with hope for the future after the disastrously unpopular second term of the previous leader.

The opposition party was in ruins, distrusted and shunned by the public and mired in brutal infighting. Their situation was so dire people openly questioned whether the party could ever truly recover.

That description is of the victory of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), the Kuomintang (KMT) he led to victory in 2008, and the state of the newly out-of-office Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). It could equally apply to the election of Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her DPP only eight years later.

Today, the widespread popularity of Ma or the KMT in general is hard to imagine, but it was very real and very pervasive. Ma was charismatic, handsome, and seemingly could do no wrong — even his association with people with extreme views on unification with China and suspicions he held the same views flowed off him like water off a duck's back.

The KMT had sharply pivoted from the days when Tsai was a member of the Lee Tung-hui (李登輝) administration in the 1990s (see part I of this series), from a party that firmly opposed the communist regime in Beijing to one that preferred engagement. They made the case in the 2008 election that by opening up the “three links” (direct flights, shipping, and post) and signing trade agreements, Taiwan’s economy would boom, slow the flood of businesses relocating across the strait, boost local investment from China, and raise wages after a long period of stagnation — and voters trusted them to make it happen.

The presidency of the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) had ended badly in a flurry of protests and corruption allegations that would eventually see him jailed. The big egos in the party and their affiliated factions were often in open warfare, tearing apart their own internal coherence and image in the press.

Stepping up to lead the demoralized and fractured party was a respected, but middle-weight, party member with no factional backing: Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the first woman to lead a major party in Taiwan (see part II of this series). Her move was a bold one. Few heavyweight party figures in either the KMT or DPP step up when their party is coming off a disastrous defeat, but she seized the moment and filled the void.

Tsai had some advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, she was a widely respected technocrat, an accomplished diplomat and negotiator, and didn’t have the baggage that came with being tied to a faction. On the other hand, she was distrusted by some for being a woman and had no electoral experience — a major handicap for a political party leader.

Fortunately for her, she had a year and a half to prepare for her first big test: the 2009 local elections. For a party many had been writing off, under Tsai’s leadership the DPP actually increased their vote percentages and even picked up a county commissioner post. It was considered a promising start to a revival in spite of winning only four total county commissioner posts to the KMT’s 12.

The 2010 elections were a bigger challenge, as this was a first for the five special municipality mayorships (three were added that year): New Taipei City (formerly Taipei County), Taichung, and Tainan. These are the high profile positions that launch national careers, especially the Taipei mayorship.

Tsai herself joined an election for the first time, running for mayor of New Taipei against the KMT's then-rising star Eric Chu (朱立倫) — and lost. The loss wasn’t a blowout, however.

The DPP won only two mayorships to the KMT’s three but actually garnered more votes overall. Once again, Tsai won accolades for having stabilized the party so recently in freefall.

With some electoral experience under her belt and a track record showing the party firming up public support, it was time to take on the big prize: the national elections in 2012. With the presidency and 81 seats in the 113-seat legislature, the KMT had a firm lock on power, and Tsai was under pressure to make significant inroads to show the party was finally back on track.

As was standard then, the chairs of both major parties were the presumed presidential candidates. Tsai was challenged in an opinion poll primary by Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), a co-founder of the DPP who as premier had tapped her to be his vice premier during the Chen administration.

Tsai won the primary and set out to challenge Ma. Though not the untouchable figure that he was in 2008, Ma was still a powerhouse and Tsai quite simply wasn’t ready for the big leagues. Ma won — though Tsai did better than the landslide loss Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) had suffered in the previous election.

The DPP also did significantly better in the legislature, reaching 40 seats and knocking the KMT down to 64 — but that still left the KMT with over half the seats. In short, the DPP still lost, just less embarrassingly.

As is customary, Tsai resigned to take responsibility for the loss. Su Tseng-chang ran and won the party chair position.

While Su presided over a two-year term that included no elections, President Ma began pursuing a more aggressive policy of opening to China, drawing down Taiwan’s military budget and throwing sand in the wheels of the bilateral relationships with countries like the U.S. and Japan — but just enough to create irritants, not a full-on breakdown. Opinion polling on Ma began to slide, but the KMT still had the upper hand.

That is until a major tectonic shift took place in Taiwanese politics. Activists and civil society began to grow more and more alarmed at the Ma administration and KMT’s increasing tilt toward Beijing, though this worry had yet to reach the general voting public.

That all changed when the KMT attempted to ram through the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) in the legislature without going through normal legislative processes and honoring previous agreements with the DPP. This was the spark needed to ignite a firestorm.

On March 18, 2014, activists and students stormed the legislature and began an occupation in protest. What would soon be called the Sunflower Movement had begun, and suddenly the topic of relations with China was foremost on everyone’s mind.

Hundreds of thousands came out onto the streets in support. The major parties now faced a major test: how to respond? The activists themselves were clear. They were disgusted with both of the major parties, though more so with the KMT. Neither party was spared in their harsh criticism.

Just three days before the occupation of the legislature, Tsai had declared her intention to challenge Su and Frank Hsieh (who had also declared his intent to run) to reclaim leadership of the party. Tsai was more adroit in her handling of the evolving situation than the party elders she was challenging and personally showed up to join the protests.

By April 10, the occupation and protests were over, but the political landscape had shifted dramatically. Identification as “Taiwanese” in the polls, which had been rising for years, spiked higher and distrust of the KMT’s handling of ties with Beijing became widespread.

While some have argued that the increase in Taiwanese identity wasn’t high enough to justify the hype of a major tectonic shift, the polls were in many ways misleading because of what they couldn’t measure: depth of feeling. Although the overall number of those identifying as Taiwanese did spike, there was a concurrent, significant deepening of that sense amongst those who identified this way.

Pride in being Taiwanese, and distinct from China, grew significantly among this cohort — especially the young. This manifested in many ways, from the arts to a revival of interest in local traditions to an increased interest in locally produced music sung in Hoklo (Taiwanese), appreciation of Indigenous culture, and much more.

Though not entirely accurate, the Sunflower Movement was characterized as a “student movement.” This emphasis on the youth aspect and clear unhappiness with the politics-as-usual shifted the underlying political dynamic and probably contributed to the old warhorses Su and Hsieh withdrawing from the chair race and leaving the field open for the relatively youthful Tsai.

In May, Tsai returned as DPP chair and, with the wind now at her back, prepared to lead the party into the 2014 local elections. While many Sunflower supporters would have preferred third-party candidates, there were few on the ground.

With the DPP being the only viable alternative to the newly unpopular KMT, the opposition party strode to a stunning victory — taking 13 of the 22 mayor and county commissioner positions and more than doubling their numbers. The KMT lost nine, including key battlegrounds like Taichung and Changhua.

Since taking the reins of her party in their darkest hour, Tsai had rebuilt it into a force to be reckoned with. The factions had quieted down, talent was being cultivated, and the party was sharper and more focused.

Now the tables were turned. The KMT was still in denial, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that they were on their way out.

The DPP under their formidable leader were now ready to seriously challenge the KMT not just for the presidency but for the legislature — something they had never achieved before.

If Tsai could accomplish that, she would go down in legend as the party leader who finally slew the dragon.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw), and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.