Taiwan: The DPP’s Future Lies in Itself, Not in the KMT

Shih-chung Liu
Shih-chung Liu President - Taiwan Brain Trust

October 3, 2009

The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) recent landslide victory in Yunlin County’s legislative by-election – the party’s first electoral victory after most voters chose to replace it with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in the presidential election in March last year – has several implications for Taiwanese politics.

The DPP is again resembling what it was back in the 1990s, when it adopted a strategy of “besieging the center from the locality,” which entails winning local elections before taking power nationally. The success of the Yunlin by-election can serve not only to revive the party’s morale, but also to improve its odds in local elections in December, as well as those scheduled for next December.

The result of the by-election reflects growing dissatisfaction with President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration because of its failure to fulfill campaign promises on bringing the struggling economy back on track, as well as its poor handling of Typhoon Morakot. Despite a KMT split in the Yunlin election, the DPP candidate garnered more votes than his two pan-blue camp rivals put together.

Most importantly, the election underscored public awareness of the gap between former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) corruption trial and the DPP’s official position. The strategy adopted by the DPP to “support Chen’s judicial human rights while condemning his immoral misconduct and violation of the DPP’s core values” has minimized the “Chen effect.” It also reduces the impact of the KMT’s “Chen bashing” aimed at sabotaging DPP unity. The KMT government’s repeated use of the “DPP corruption card” is being offset by the “KMT incompetence card.”

Nevertheless, it is too early for the DPP to gloat over Yunlin. A decline in public support for the KMT does not necessarily translate into support for the DPP. While the DPP’s image has risen slightly after hitting rock bottom, it still has a long way to go. The DPP needs to consolidate its central leadership, promote unity and refocus on the core issues of political reform, justice, human rights and defense of Taiwan’s democratic sovereignty.

With the addition of the Yunlin seat in the Legislative Yuan, the DPP now controls one-quarter of the legislature’s 112 seats, which is sufficient to launch at least a “symbolic” check against the Ma administration through petitions to the Constitutional Court for interpretations on government policies, as well as launching an impeachment bid based on the president’s performance.

The DPP should carefully use the political tools at its disposal to focus debate on key areas. Instead of distancing itself from Chen, a more constructive way of reframing its image would be to improve discipline and increase monitoring of the KMT government’s efficiency. The DPP needs to revive its founding principles of “integrity, diligent government and love of country” by demonstrating its ability to return to power through correcting mistakes, and by a more balanced stance on cross-strait relations. Finally, and most importantly, the DPP should prepare to take over from the KMT with a team of capable and experienced people, as well as younger talent. This includes more experts in international affairs.

As the possibility of a return to power increases, the world will be watching whether the DPP will advance its legacy of protecting Taiwan’s ability to determine its future through democratic and peaceful means, and whether it can avoid the mistakes Chen made in pursuit of this goal. A policy of reaching out to the world community and refining the party’s policies on future cross-strait and international relations is of utmost importance.

The future of the DPP lies in itself, not in the KMT’s demise.