Taiwan’s presidential election in January 2012 marked a fresh wave of defeat for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and has forced the party to grapple with its future vis-à-vis the Kuomintang (KMT). DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen’s loss, widely believed to be the result of the DPP’s ambiguous cross-Strait policy based around the “Taiwan Consensus,” has prompted the party to rethink its handling of the campaign and begin to regroup for the 2016 election. Since its defeat, the DPP has announced a combination of new initiatives and changes to existing policies. The party, however, still faces significant obstacles, including resolving inter-party tensions, securing voter confidence and forging consensus on an approach toward the People’s Republic of China. Despite some promising signs that the party is addressing its weaknesses, the DPP will need to assuage concerns about its policy positions, unify around a single candidate, and sell its revamped platform to voters to successfully return to power in 2016.
Aftermath of the Election
In mid-February, the DPP published a report analyzing six main reasons for its defeat in the January 2012 presidential and Legislative Yuan (LY) elections: (1) “voters’ doubts about the DPP as a ruling party”; (2) “a collaborated effort of the Chinese Nationalist Party [KMT] and the Chinese Communist Party to use the cross-strait economy as a scare tactic”; (3) “the KMT’s abuse of its administrative resources as campaign tools”; (4) travel difficulties for people returning home to vote; (5) lower than expected voter turnout; and (6) tactical voting that reduced blue votes for third-party candidate James Soong in favor of President Ma Ying-jeou. During the election, the DPP rejected the “1992 Consensus”—that both Taipei and Beijing agree there is only “one China,” though both sides interpret “one China” differently—but the party denied that this stance contributed to voters’ concerns about a potential DPP administration’s handling of cross-Strait relations. The party acknowledged that both the KMT, which has embraced the “1992 Consensus,” and the mainland effectively portrayed the DPP as opposing the expansion of trade and cross-Strait economic ties (Taipei Times, February 16).
Since the publication of the party’s assessment, the DPP has been focused on voters’ concerns about the “Taiwan Consensus,” which Tsai described in a pre-election interview with the New York Times: “people in Taiwan have to get together and form a consensus of their own and…turn around to talk to the Chinese to form a cross-Strait consensus so we can build a relationship on that consensus.” This reframing of cross-Strait relations was put forward as an alternative to the “1992 Consensus.” Voters’ familiarity with the “1992 Consensus,” however, contrasted sharply with their unease over how the “Taiwan Consensus” would affect cross-Strait relations and growing economic integration that is widely viewed as beneficial for Taiwan. This was especially true given that Beijing made support of the “1992 Consensus” a precondition for any Taiwan-based groups seeking formal talks. Beijing’s negative response to the “Taiwan Consensus” exacerbated popular fears that a return of the DPP to power would cause a reemergence of the cross-Strait tensions that existed during most of Chen Shui-bian’s presidency from 2000 to 2008.
In the months following the election, the DPP launched a series of initiatives to clarify the “Taiwan Consensus” and elaborate on the party’s cross-Strait policy. New party chairman Su Tseng-chang announced on July 25th that the DPP would reestablish its Department of China Affairs, which had been merged into a larger international affairs department in 2007 (Global Times, July 26). On July 27th, the DPP announced a "three stages and three levels" plan for cross-Strait relations. The three stages consist of the following: (1) restarting the China Affairs department and organizing a higher-level task force called the China Association Committee; (2) carrying out debates and discussions in the China Association Committee; and (3) codifying the party’s vision for cross-Strait policy. The three “levels” for party action are “domestic,” “international,” and “cross-Strait” (Want China Times, July 29). Both the pre- and post-election cross-Strait frameworks are based on the party’s 1999 “Resolution on Taiwan’s Future,” which maintains that Taiwan is sovereign and independent, so the “three stages and three levels” concept is more a repackaging of the “Taiwan Consensus” than a change in policy. This reformulation aimed to address voters’ concerns by providing a step-by-step plan that explains how the party develops and executes its policy toward the mainland.
The party also is expanding its contacts across the Strait and further abroad. Three DPP members, legislators Hsiao Bi-khim and Lin Chia-lung and former spokesman Lo Chih-cheng, visited the mainland this year, although in the capacity of private citizens because the party does not yet have an official relationship with the CCP. The DPP additionally plans to re-open its U.S. office, which was closed in 2000 after the DPP came to power, in order to have more regular contact with U.S. interlocutors.
Factional Differences Play a Role
In addition to convincing voters of the DPP’s willingness to advance the cross-Strait relationship, the party must also find a presidential candidate for 2016 who will receive broad pan-green support as well as win over middle voters. Even though factions were officially disbanded within the DPP in 2006, multiple factions influence the party’s policies with other smaller groups playing auxiliary roles. The four main factions are the former New Tide faction, which originated out of a literary group begun in the 1980s, and the three personality-based factions surrounding former DPP Chairman and 2008 presidential candidate Frank Hsieh, current DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang, and former premier Yu Shyi-kun. The factions were able to set aside their differences during the presidential campaign, but after Tsai’s defeat, tensions resurfaced. In addition to divergent views on policy toward mainland China, there also are lasting personal grievances against the leaders of other factions. For example, Frank Hsieh and Su Tseng-chang have a notoriously rocky relationship that led to conflict during the election over the accuracy of the DPP’s polling methods (Taiwan Times, January 19). The New Tide faction is considered the most pragmatic and strategic faction with a greater ability than the other factions to adjust its policies and expectations in line with changes in current events and public opinion. In contrast, “deep-green” voters are led by politicians, such as Koo Kwang-ming and Trong Chai, and many base their ideological compass around the first popularly-elected ROC president (and founder of the deep-green Taiwan Solidarity Union) Lee Teng-hui.
Elections for the two key party leadership bodies revealed deep-seated divisions. After elections for the 30-member Central Executive Committee (CEC) in July, the CEC elected 10 members Central Standing Committee (CSC)—the CSC also has seven other members who hold ex officio positions. During the CEC elections, a fellow party member accused Kaohsiung Mayor and interim DPP Chairwoman Chen Chu of meeting with “gangsters” and relying on other tactics to assure her supporters would win seats (Taipei Times, July 19). Later, the results of the July CSC elections indicated multiple factions were strong enough to win seats in the top level of DPP leadership. The New Tide won three spots, former premier Yu Shyi-kun’s and Frank Hsieh’s factions each won two spots and Chairman Su Tseng-chang’s faction and the Green Friendship Alliance won one seat each. Another trend is the growing strength of the New Tide faction, which has the most representation in both committees. The New Tide, however, has yet to back any other factions or candidates, such as Su Tseng-chang or Tsai Ing-wen, who are likely to be the top contenders for the DPP in next presidential primaries. Gaining this faction’s support probably will be crucial for any would-be presidential contender in 2016.
Table 1. DPP Central Standing Committee Membership, 2012
(10 Seats Total)
Ex Officio Members
(7 Seats Total)
Total Seats Controlled by Faction
3 (effectively 2)**
Green Friendship Alliance
Sources: Author’s Interviews; Taipei Times; Focus Taiwan; Central News Agency [Taiwan].
*Three ex officio members, Chen Chu, William Lai and Su Chih-fun, are traditionally members of the New Tide faction but mainly focus on regional/metropolitan politics.
**One of Yu Shyi-kun’s supporters, Chen Ting-fei, holds both an elected seat and an ex officio position on the CSC, so Yu’s factional support on the CSC effectively consists of two people, himself and Chen.
On economic issues, the DPP’s leadership will need to appeal to a broader base if its candidate is to win the 2016 presidential election. The DPP traditionally has voiced concerns over Taiwan’s economic dependence on the PRC, with over 40 percent of Taiwanese exports headed to the mainland and Hong Kong in 2011 . DPP legislators also have questioned whether the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed between both sides of the strait in 2010 and more recent loosening of restrictions on Chinese investment in Taiwan will produce benefits or create greater vulnerabilities for the island (Taipei Times, March 15; July 11, 2011). Economic growth fell from 10.7 percent in 2010 to 4 percent last year and is forecast to at only 1.6 percent for 2012. This is a key concern for voters—many of whom believe strengthened economic ties with the mainland will bolster the economy. The DPP will need to convince voters that its policies can reinvigorate Taiwan’s economic development rather than lead to unpredictability in cross-Strait relations that would be bad for business.
There are some signs that the DPP will revamp its economic policy by 2016. The lifting of a ban against U.S. beef imports ban in July, which the DPP opposed after the KMT returned to power, removed a chief stumbling block for Taiwan to resume Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks with the United States. This also may be a stepping stone toward Taipei’s membership in the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP)—a popular initiative with voters that the DPP endorses. Tsai Ing-wen recently established a new foundation called Thinking Taiwan, which focuses on economic issues along with other key challenges facing Taiwan. In the first post on the forum’s website, Tsai wrote that the “our… biggest test is to seek out a new model for the Taiwan’s future economic development” (ThinkingTaiwan.com, 2012). In September, the DPP announced initiatives to develop a “sensible economy” through policies to boost industrial competitiveness, assist small-to-medium sized businesses and provide incentives for businesses that hire recent college graduates (Taipei Times, September 21).
For the DPP to promote its policies successfully, timing will be key. The first important deadline is 2014, when local and municipal elections will identify strong candidates and their backers in the party’s top levels. If the candidates do well in those elections, Chairman Su’s popularity will probably grow—if they do not, he will likely step down. Either way, the election outcomes should spur the factions to reach a decision about the strongest candidate for 2016 as the nomination process begins. If the factions hesitate in banding together around one candidate at that point, the DPP may face difficulties in selling a united message to voters in time for the platform to stick before the presidential election occurs. Given lingering concerns about the implications of key DPP policies, it is not enough to hope that President Ma’s low polling numbers (currently below 25 percent) simply will sweep the opposition to victory, especially given that the KMT will field a new candidate in 2016 because of presidential term limits.
The Chen Shui-bian presidency from 2000 to 2008 left the DPP’s reputation in tatters. The DPP scored a significant comeback in 2012, winning 46 percent of the vote, but popular doubts persisted about the party’s overall vision for Taiwan and its ability to manage cross-Strait relations and Taiwan’s relationship with the United States. To win in 2016, the party will need to accomplish three goals. First, it must convince voters, Beijing and Washington that a DPP-led government can maintain cross-Strait stability. Second, it must unite behind a presidential candidate after the local and municipal elections in 2014 to give the candidate and the DPP’s Legislative Yuan candidates enough time on the campaign trail. Third, after naming a candidate, the party will need to show what it would strive to accomplish in office; well-defined defense and trade policies as well as a road map to reinvigorate economic growth will be essential.
Some with ties to the DPP understand the challenges the party faces for 2016 and already have expressed their concerns that the party is not changing enough in response to Taiwan voters’ evolving priorities. Julian Kuo, a former DPP legislator, wrote in June that the DPP’s continued blocking of beef imports could offend Taiwan’s political supporters in the U.S. Congress and harm the DPP’s future re-election chances (Now News, June 14). Meanwhile, with respect to a cross-Strait joint construction project, Kuo argued cross-Strait finance and trade will continue to normalize in the next four years as an extension of recent improved ties. Kuo warned, however, “if the DPP is not careful, if it fails to clarify what its own political objectives are and continues to put national security above all else, following the same overly-politicized agenda as before, come the next election economic voters will almost certainly remain unconvinced the DPP is fit to govern, or that it can be trusted with cross-Strait affairs” (Taipei Times, February 27).
- Calculated from “B-2 Export by Key Trading Partners,” Republic of China, Ministry of Economic Affairs (2012), https://2k3dmz2.moea.gov.tw/gnweb/Indicator/wHandIndicator_File.ashx?type=pdf&report_code=FB02.