Su Tseng-Chang and the Future of the DPP

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 12

DPP Chairman Su Tseng-Chang

After the loss of the January 2012 presidential election, the opposition-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan had been searching for a new chairperson to lead the party. Since its defeat, the DPP’s presidential candidate, Dr. Tsai Ing-Wen, a noted academic and former chairman of the Executive Yuan’s Mainland Affairs Council, stepped down as party chairwoman. Tsai’s decision to remove herself from the race for the party’s top leadership position—in spite of party supporters urging her to stay on to continue leading the party—left a vacuum in the top political leadership of the main opposition political party and sparked some concerns about the future direction of the party (Taipei Times, February 12).

For the past four months, the party’s top brass and supporters within think tanks and academia have debated the reasons for the DPP’s defeat and a new way forward. During the month of May and in the lead up to the chairperson election that was held on May 27th, the DPP organized a series of three televised debates between the contenders for chairman (Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu served as the caretaker for the last two months): former Premier Su Tseng-Chang, former Tainan County Magistrate Su Huan-Chih, former Vice Premier Wu Rong-I, former Legislative Yuan member Chai Trong-Rong and former Party Chairman Hsu Hsin-Liang.  The debates brought to light some differences concerning policies and approaches to China, but the overarching theme was the need for party unity and the underlying question of who should lead the DPP toward the 2016 presidential election (Taipei Times, April 17).

On May 27th, with a record-high turnout of 68.62 percent eligible party member votes cast, the party’s electorate passed the chairperson baton to Su Tseng-Chang with a majority 50.47 percent of votes (Taipei Times, May 28). Su, who netted twice as votes as the closest runner up, has been interpreted by many observers as a clear mandate for him to lead the party. While Su received a clear majority among the five contenders in the race, it behooves observers to know that the other candidates also represent relevant power blocs within the DPP’s electorate. Given the overwhelming focus on the need to promote party unity in the chairperson election, Su’s number one priority will be to bring together the different views represented in the DPP to improve party unity and manage the way forward to elections in 2014 and 2016.

A profile of the contenders and policy positions presented in the debates during this race for the chairperson position therefore could provide insights into the orientation and future direction of the party. The role of the chairperson should not be understated. As cross-Strait policymaking becomes more diffused, the position of the DPP will have important implications for the future direction of the cross-Strait relations over the next four years [1].

2008 Redux?

The DPP’s 2012 defeat in the presidential election marked the second consecutive loss following the party’s landslide defeat in the 2008 presidential and legislative elections. Back in 2008, a sense of urgency filled the ranks and files of the DPP as supporters worried if it would ever be able to climb up from its crushing defeat to Ma Ying-jeou. The prevailing sense of pessimism at the time may be attributed in part to the fact that the party’s top brass (euphemistically referred to as the four kings and one queen) were all at the frontline for the 2008 election and, after the DPP’s defeat, there were no clear leaders ready to take over the party after Frank Hsieh’s bruising defeat.

In 2008, Frank Hsieh—whom with the other three DPP contenders, Su Tseng-Chang, Vice President Annette Lu and Yu Shyi-Kun were hailed as the three kings and one queen of the party (for their role in the Party’s establishment and down a king without Chen Shui-Bian)—was the DPP’s favorite to take on Ma. Yet, the pessimism that followed losing the 2008 election stood in stark contrast to the party’s reaction to the result of the 2012 presidential election. While many held hopes that Tsai could pull off an upset (indeed, some polls suggested she could), Tsai’s defeat did not engender the same pessimistic reaction within the party after the 2008 presidential election. A lot has changed between 2008 and 2012, suggesting a newfound maturity and confidence within the party. Moreover, this change in attitude may be due in part because the DPP did a lot better than many people expected following the 2008 loss.

Who Were the 2012 Candidates?

Su Huan-Chih (born 1956): With 21.02 percent of the votes, Su Huan-Chih’s silver medal performance surprised some observers. The relative newcomer and former Tainan County commissioner was the first candidate to register for the DPP chairperson election (Taipei Times, April 10). Su made “generational change” the theme of his campaign, and came in second to Su Tseng-chang by a smaller-than-expected margin. During the campaign, Su Huan-Chih argued he was the best candidate for the position because he is not affiliated with any faction and he has pledged not to run in future elections—implying that he does not plan to use the chairmanship to become the presidential nominee (Taipei Times, April 17). On China, Su Huan-chih believes the party already has a complete mechanism and policies for cross-Strait issues and there is no need for change.

Wu Rong-I (born 1939): The former vice premier who has only been in the party for nearly one year came in a respectable third with 14.73 percent. Wu said during the campaign that the DPP’s resolution on Taiwan’s future clearly states the party’s position. The resolution defines Taiwan as a sovereign country separate from the People’s Republic of China, while acknowledging the Republic of China (ROC) as the country’s formal title. According to party insiders, the resolution, passed in 1999, still represents the DPP’s basic position toward cross-Strait relations. “Taiwan is already sovereign and independent,” Wu said, “There is no such issue as a ‘declaration of independence’.” Wu is currently the Chairman of Taiwan Brain Trust, a think tank established by independence stalwart Koo Kwang-Ming. He is also a board member of Taiwan Thinktank and Senior Adviser of Taiwan Institute of Economic Research (China Review News, May 3; Taipei Times, April 19).

Chai Trong-Rong (born 1935): A veteran politician and a previous challenger for the party chairmanship, Chai served as a DPP legislator. During the campaign, Chai said he would implement eight policies, including demanding that jailed former president Chen Shui-bian be pardoned, expanding grassroots party members’ involvement in party affairs, leading the DPP to victory in the 2014 "seven-in-one" local elections and increasing the party’s level of interaction with the United States (Want China Times, April 13). Chai is one of the DPP activists who spent 30 years in exile as an independence activist in the United States. He also was one of the founders of Formosa TV, the first privately-owned broadcast in Taiwan, and gave up the post of chairman in 2003 under DPP pressure to depoliticize the media.

Hsu Hsin-Liang (born 1941): The former DPP chairman came in last with only 2.49 percent. Early on in the campaign, Hsu pledged his support to Tsai Ing-wen in running for the presidency again in 2016. Given the uncertainty surrounding the impact of a new chairperson on Tsai’s campaign platforms, Hsu vowed to include Tsai’s election campaign platform in the DPP’s official papers. Hsu proposed the party establish a committee to deal with cross-Strait affairs and recommended Frank Hsieh be appointed as its head. Hsu is known for supporting more open China policies that are quite different from the attitude of the party’s more pro-independence inclinations (Want China Times, April 14).

The New Chairperson and the Road to 2016

With all the votes tallied, Su Tseng-Chang received a majority of the vote with 50.47 percent, former Tainan county magistrate Su Huan-Chih finished in second place with 21.02 percent, followed by former Vice Premier Wu Rong-I  with 14.73 percent, then former LY member Chai Trong-rong with 11.28 percent and, finally, former party chairman Hsu Hsin-liang with 2.49 percent. The voting rate was a record-high turnout of 68.62 percent (Taipei Times, May 28).

Su Tseng-Chang (born 1947), along with Chen Shui-bian, Frank Hsieh, Yu Shyi-kun and Annette Lu, were considered the four kings and one queen of the DPP. Su was the only candidate among these party elders in the 2012 race for the chairperson position and probably the only viable candidate among the five in the 2016 presidential election. Su’s term as chairman is for two years (May 30, 2012-May 30, 2014). The seven-in-one local elections (mayoral and commissioner elections) to be held at the end of 2014 will be Chairman Su’s most important test as a party builder and as a mid-term assessment of his ability to lead the Party into 2016—even if he is no longer chairman. If Su is able to lead the DPP to victory in the local elections, he will have a better chance to get support necessary for a 2016 presidential bid.

In the local media, Su is seen as more pragmatic than other DPP politicians in dealing with China. During the campaign, he said that in light of a changing China, the party should be more flexible, which explained why he wanted to reinstate the China Department in the party national headquarters. Su also said he would not rule out visiting the mainland as party leader if the timing and conditions were right—such as Beijing refraining from setting preconditions (Xinhua, May 30). In spite of widespread speculation about his intention to run in the 2016 presidential election, Su insisted the only thing on his mind  right now was to execute his job successfully as party chairperson during the two-year term and to win the 2014 seven-in-one elections that would be essential for laying down the foundation for the DPP’s prospects for winning the “big one” in 2016 [2].

Su’s platform on China is to insist on Tsai Ing-wen’s “Taiwan Consensus,” although tactical changes may be forthcoming even as Su and Tsai appear more closely aligned on China policy. Su wants to visit China, because he wishes not only to see communist officials but also Chinese society. Su insists Taiwan can not understand China only through the KMT and vice versa. Therefore, the DPP needs to have a holistic China policy—seemingly including direct contact—so that the electorate can better understand Beijing and its policies. During a lecture on June 9, Tsai warned China may face serious challenges to maintain political stability when economic growth slows down or becomes stagnant. She pointed out Taiwanese people should be more informed about Chinese "public opinion" as expressed in increasing social protests and widespread collective resentments caused by worsening societal inequality and corruption, and stated she supports meaningful exchange with various segments of Chinese society.

To advise him, Su will have two advisory committees on China affairs: Department of China Affairs, a DPP-headquarters body, and the Chinese Affairs Committee, an advisory body including academics and experts as members. Su also plans to restore the DPP Representative Office in the United States to strengthen its relations with Washington. Su pointed out, if financial conditions allow, the DPP would like to set up a DPP representative office in Japan to emphasize future Taiwan-Japan relations.

Another perennial debate among DPP leaders is whether or not the Party should organize an inner Party debate on China policy as Frank Hsieh has advocated. According to Hsieh, DPP members are still divided over the party’s China policy and the best way to lay out a roadmap and party policy was a public debate. The priority issue for the DPP, according to Hsieh’s statements, is whether the party should engage with China. The last thing the DPP wants is to be excluded from all cross-Strait talks, which is the case at present. “[The exclusion] would make cross-Strait talks the exclusive right of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and could subsequently sacrifice the rights and welfare of people with lower incomes—the core DPP supporters—with the DPP sitting on the sidelines without entering the game.” Yet, Su stated there is “no such urgency and [the Party] should not rush either” (Taipei Times, June 7).

Yet, for Su, visiting China will not be the focal point at this stage. Instead, Su will take on the strengthening of the party’s local organizations as a priority to prepare for the coming 2014 elections. This puts party unity near the top of Su’s agenda, and he intends to hold talks with leaders of various party factions. Su does not rule out meeting Ma if circumstances allowed. Ma called to congratulate Su in the evening when the election result was out, and Ma invited Su to talk over the phone. With Tsai and Su both interested in running for the presidency four years from now, the interactions, comparisons and competitions between the two DPP heavyweights are expected to be a hot issue during Su’s tenure. Building the party’s strength and coherence as a political force could be an important factor in deciding whether Su will be the DPP’s candidate and probably will receive more attention than potentially contentious policy debates. How Su balances party unity and setting clear policies will be the deciding factor in the health and relevance of the DPP going forward.


  1. Other political figures who did not enter the race but will influence the future direction of the party include the following: 2012 presidential candidate Tsai Ing-Wen (a potential DPP presidential candidate for 2016), former Premier and 2008 DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh (who pledged to retire from politics after his 2008 defeat) and former President Lee Teng-Hui.
  2. Vice Premier Wu Rong-I and former Tainan County commissioner Su Huan-Chih pledged not to run in 2016 with Hsu publicly endorsing Tsai’s second try for the presidency.