President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) appointment of Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) as premier did not come as a surprise, as it was seen as a necessary move to consolidate Chen's leadership.
However, former Premier Frank Hsieh's (謝長廷) refusal to accept Chen's offer of a new post is an indication that a split within the DPP may be inevitable.
In fact, it became clear that Hsieh wished to take his own path after he took the initiative to disclose to the media details of his consultations with Chen on the Cabinet reshuffle and openly voiced his disapproval of Chen's "active management, effective liberalization" cross-strait policy.
Hsieh did not resign because ran the government poorly or failed in his effort to promote reconciliation with the opposition parties. And he did not step down because his plan to have the Legislature reconsider its cuts in the government's annual budget was met with disapproval by Chen.
The fact is that Su was seen as Chen's last trump card. It was thought that Chen had no choice but to play this card in order to calm growing dissatisfaction among DPP heavyweights over his leadership that was widely seen as the main reason for the party's defeat in the December 3 local elections.
By appointing Su as premier, Chen has been able to win the support of the party's New Tide faction, which has been most critical of the president's policies, thus consolidating his party leadership.
However, Chen's move also tilted a long-held balance of power among the four presidential hopefuls in the ruling party - Su, Hsieh, Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), and DPP Chairman Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃).
With Su's rise to the top administrative post, the DPP is now broadly divided into two camps, with one being led by Chen, Su, and Yu, and the other controlled by Hsieh, Lu, and former DPP Chairman Lin Yi-siung, who this week withdrew from the DPP. Political observers are speculating that the struggle may intensify as the year-end Kaohsiung mayoral race and the 2008 presidential election draw near.
The competition for the DPP nomination in the December election for Kaohsiung mayor may indicate if there will be further splits in the ruling party.
Impact of MRT scandal
Meanwhile, the Kaohsiung MRT scandal has forced former Presidential Office Deputy Secretary-General Chen Che-nan (陳哲男) and his son, former acting Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁), out of the game. Their withdrawal from the top ranks has given former Council of Labor Affairs (勞委會) Chairwoman Chen Chu (陳菊), who is affiliated with the New Tide faction, a greater chance of representing the DPP in the race. However, Hsieh's supporters will not give in easily and will demand that the DPP nominate one of them to run in exchange for Hsieh's resignation from the premiership.
Earlier, President Chen and most DPP leaders had agreed to recommend a nominee through consultations rather than by holding a primary that could escalate internal factional struggles and undermine the party's chances of winning.
The DPP's performance in the Kaohsiung mayoral race may also serve as an indicator of whether the party can hold on to its ruling party status, especially in view of the fact that its chances of winning in Taipei City are slim. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for the DPP to win the 2008 race if it fails to secure its stronghold in southern Taiwan.
Both former Interior Minister Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) and former Foreign Minister Mark Chen (陳唐山) had earlier planned to run for Kaohsiung mayor, but Su's transfer to the Council of Agriculture and Chen's transfer to the Presidential Office indicates that President Chen might have reached a tacit agreement with Su and the New Tide faction to allow Chen Chu to run.
This arrangement has forced Hsieh to openly support his confidant, DPP Legislator Kuan Pi-ling (管碧玲), as the DPP Kaohsiung mayoral candidate in order to maintain his influence in the southern port city.
Chen still in firm control
President Chen is seen as still being in firm control of the government and the DPP, judging from the recent reshuffle of key government posts. Among those who have been closely associated with President Chen are Vice Premier Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Foreign Minister James Huang (黃志芳), Interior Minister Lee Yi-yang (李逸洋), Mainland Affairs Council Chairman Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), Transportation and Communications Minister Kuan Yao-chi, Central Personnel Administration Minister Chou Hung-hsien, and Coast Guard Administration Minister Wang Chin-wang (王進旺).
Su has also recommended his own people to serve in the new Cabinet. For instance, Su's right-hand men, Lin Hsi-yao and Wu Tse-cheng, were named respectively as minister without portfolio and minister of the Public Construction Commission. New Tide faction leaders, such as Yen Wan-chin, Cheng Wen-tsan, and Chen Chun-lin (陳俊麟) were also appointed vice interior minister, head of the Government Information Office, and vice chairman of the Research, Evaluation, and Development Commission respectively.
Yu meanwhile, in addition taking over the helm of the DPP, has succeeded in persuading Su to accept Huang Ing-san as economics minister, Chiu Kun-liang (邱坤良) as head of the Council of Cultural Affairs, Hsu Shih-hsiung as chairman of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, and Cheng Li-chun as chairman of the National Youth Commission.
Political observers have interpreted President Chen's cooperation with Su and Yu as based on recognition of his need for their support after the president's popularity dropped sharply in the wake of the DPP's defeat in the December 3, 2005 local elections.
Excluding Hsieh, Lu
At present, it appears that Chen has excluded Hsieh and Lu from the 2008 presidential race, but the pair have other ideas, particularly after former DPP Chairman Lin Yi-hsiung openly criticized the president's leadership.
Some see Lin, Hsieh, and Lu's role in the DPP as similar to that of former President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) after he was expelled by the opposition Kuomintang in the wake of its 2000 presidential election defeat.
The difference is that the three still exert considerable influence in the DPP. Lin has long been regarded as the DPP's spiritual leader, and Lu as a human rights activist and a strategist who enjoys strong support from pro-independence groups at home and abroad. Hsieh remains as popular in Kaohsiung CIty as he was before he resigned from the mayorship to serve as premier a year ago.
If Hsieh, Lu, and Lin decide to cooperate closely with each other and push forward one from among them to run in the 2008 election, they may yet be able to defeat the candidate recommended by the mainstream influence under the leadership of Chen, Su and Yu.
Although Chen, Su, and Yu are aware of potential challenges from the DPP's non-mainstream influence, they have no choice but to go ahead with their cooperation in hopes of reversing the situation as time goes by.