Friday, February 23, 2007

The Four Heavenly Kings

DPP contenders set to battle for party's crown
Jonathan Adams
Asia Times, January 9, 2007

While Beijing may not want to see Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party continue to rule the island after 2008, the DPP emerged from last month's mayoral elections in Taipei and Kaohsiung with renewed hope that it might hold on to power in next year's presidential elections. Now the race is on to determine who will carry the party's banner as its candidate in that key vote.

Before the mayoral elections, most saw opposition Kuomintang (KMT) chairman Ma Ying-jeou as a virtual shoo-in for the presidency in 2008. He enjoys islandwide popularity for his incorruptible image and gentleman's demeanor, though his support has drooped in recent months. Meanwhile, the DPP's support levels have been tumbling as one scandal after another has rocked President Chen Shui-bian's administration.

But after holding on to the mayoralty of second-largest city Kaohsiung and doing better than expected in the Taipei mayor's race, the DPP is more confident that it will have a fighting chance in 2008. Ma has already come under fire for weak leadership on a range of issues and poor crisis management. The vote highlighted some of Ma's political vulnerabilities - in particular, his difficulty connecting with voters in the south. And the DPP now reckons it can put the more China-friendly Ma on the defensive on the highly charged issue of national identity and so dash his presidential ambitions. "We already knew Ma's approval ratings were dropping. But after the [mayoral] elections, we have even stronger confidence that our candidate can beat Ma," said Winston Dang, director of the DPP's department of international affairs. "He's going to lose."

The `Si Da Tian Wang'

If Dang is right, who from the DPP would replace Chen? And how would this affect cross-strait relations? Taiwan's media call them the DPP's "four heavenly kings": the four party heavyweights most likely to make a primary bid for the presidential candidacy, in an islandwide vote by party members now expected in June at the latest. But most observers see only two credible candidates: Premier Su Tseng-chang, who has been dubbed the "electric fireball" for his aggressive, energetic style, and Frank Hsieh, the party's losing candidate in the Taipei mayoral election. Both have broad government experience and strong credentials as former defense lawyers for pro-democracy activists. Notably, both are viewed as moderates on cross-strait relations, while the two dimmer "stars", party chairman Yu Shyi-kun and Vice President Annette Lu, take a harder pro-independence line.

On economics, both Su and Hsieh are believed to favor lifting the restriction for Taiwan-listed companies that caps mainland-bound investment at 40% of their net worth - the most divisive issue within the DPP. Su initially supported lifting the cap in a key economic conference last summer, but backed off under pressure from a small hardline pro-independence party that wants to tightly limit cross-strait economic ties. And as premier, Su has also quietly increased cross-strait charter flights, approved the transfer by Taiwanese firms of more advanced (though not cutting-edge) chip technology to mainland China, and pushed to open up the island to more tourists from the mainland.

Hsieh's stance is less clear, but politically he may be more moderate than Su. While Su pushes closer economic ties, he tends to talk tough on Taiwan's political sovereignty. By contrast, when the affable Hsieh was premier, he pushed a line of reconciliation with the KMT-led opposition and China, though with little effect. And in the past he has remarked that Taiwan is governed by a "one China" constitution - a formulation that might help soothe nerves in Beijing, which has insisted on acceptance of the "one-China principle" as a condition for political cross-strait talks.

Economic moderates

The two men's broad goals on cross-strait relations aren't that different from Ma's: all three back the political status quo (at least in the near term) and favor warmer economic relations. But Ma is willing to be far more accommodating to Beijing to achieve those goals. For example, Ma embraces the convoluted "1992 Consensus" - an unofficial agreement to fudge the "one China" issue that allowed cross-strait talks to proceed in the early 1990s - and could start talks again. Ma hopes the shibboleth will lead to a breakthrough such as the resumption of regular cross-strait direct flights. The official DPP line is that no real agreement was ever reached, so the "1992 Consensus" is a non-starter. Su and Hsieh can be expected to toe that line. "Saying you accepted the '1992 Consensus' would be a form of political suicide for the [DPP] nomination," said Hsu Yung-ming, a political analyst at Taipei's Academia Sinica.

Ma has also backed an interim cross-strait peace pact that any DPP president would find difficult to embrace, at least in the heat of a presidential campaign. Ma said in an interview last October that if elected president, he would try to ink a deal with the mainland by 2012 under which Taiwan would forswear formal independence in exchange for Beijing's promise not to attack the island. The deal would normalize relations between the two sides while putting off the question of unification. Su responded with withering comments that sounded like the first shots in the 2008 presidential race. Said Su: "If there is any negotiation with China, it will be between two independent countries ... No matter who wins the presidential election, this person is not supposed to give up our own bottom line to negotiate with China. Otherwise, the Taiwanese president will become a 'Taiwanese chief executive'. We cannot let someone like this become our president." Ma fired back that Su was "ignorant" about cross-strait affairs. But Su's tough talk could well earn him his party's nomination in a few months' time - and leave Ma fighting to answer potent attacks that he would sell out Taiwan's core interests.

Meanwhile, Su - who grew up in a poor family in Pingtung county, in the deep south - has also built up a public image as a down-to-earth, no-nonsense public servant who can get things done. He has the support of the powerful New Tide - the DPP faction that supports closer cross-strait economic ties, and continues to wield influence despite a supposed party ban on factions last year ("They just took the 'New Tide' sign down at the office," said one DPP member). All of this makes Su a formidable candidate. "Su has an image as someone who will stand up more strongly for Taiwan's sovereignty, and wouldn't give in as much as Hsieh, though I don't know if that's really true in the policy sense," said Shelley Rigger, an expert on the DPP at Davidson College in the United States. "People think Su is more macho."

But observers haven't written off Hsieh altogether. "Frank Hsieh's popularity is rising among DPP voters," said the Academia Sinica's Hsu. His support base is what the media call his "own army" - a group of legislators who are political proteges from Hsieh's days as Kaohsiung mayor. And he has received public praise from former president Lee Teng-hui, now a staunch promoter of Taiwanese independence, as well as a respected pro-independence "elder", Koo Kwang-ming. Party members credit Hsieh with doing better than expected in the Taipei mayoral race, and helping the party hold on to Kaohsiung with his strong mayoral record there.

`Deep Green' candidate

The long-shot candidate is Yu, who is seen as closest to the unpopular President Chen - not the best position to be in politically. Yu is Chen's strongest defender within the party, has support from "deep greens" (those on the more independence-minded end of the political spectrum), and held the DPP together through tough times (his hard-working loyalty has earned him praise for his "water-buffalo spirit"). He is already being mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate, a pick that would please the hardline pro-independence vote. Most observers dismiss Lu as a serious candidate because of her lack of support within the party.

That leaves Hsieh or the "electric fireball" Su as Ma's most likely opponent. If either is able to beat Ma, how will Beijing react to another four years with the independence-leaning party in charge? Analysts say that despite the "Taiwan first" rhetoric that will surely fly during the presidential race, a new DPP president and mainland China would both recognize an opportunity to put cross-strait relations on a new footing. A DPP president would likely seek a new strategy for engaging Beijing, even if he or she could not go as far as accepting the "1992 Consensus". And for its part, mainland China has learned over the past six years with the DPP in power in Taiwan that it needs to take a more pragmatic approach. "For China, anyone's better than Chen Shui-bian," said the Academia Sinica's Hsu. "Any new president will provide a window of opportunity. I think Beijing will see 2008 as a new game."

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