China Power

Tsai Wins DPP Poll in Taiwan

Taiwan’s opposition DPP looks set to choose Tsai Ing-wen to run against Ma Ying-jeou in next year’s election.

The likely makeup of next year’s presidential election in Taiwan is clearer today after the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party said that chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen had secured the party’s nomination after winning a telephone poll. AP reports that the party is expected to formally announce Tsai's nomination as the DPP candidate to take on President Ma Ying-jeou next January on May 4.

I asked J. Michael Cole, deputy news chief at the Taipei Times and a correspondent for Jane's Intelligence Review, for his take on the result and also on Tsai as a candidate.

Cole noted that her victory in the island-wide poll against her two opponents—Su Tseng-chang and Hsu Hsin-liang—is an interesting development because if confirmed she’d be the first-ever female candidate for the post.

‘Her victory over Su was pretty narrow, while Hsu was from the beginning of the primaries far, far behind and few saw him as a strong contended in what was pretty much a two-way race,’ Cole told me. ‘Polls showed the average for Tsai against Ma was 42.5 percent against 35.04 percent, while Su’s was 41.15 percent against 33.79 percent.’

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So, what can we expect from her? ‘Despite her role in the late 1990s as a member of small group that developed then-President Lee Teng-hui’s “Two State Theory”—a legacy passed on by Lee to the incoming DPP administration of Chen Shui-bian—Tsai is regarded as a moderate, in that she has supported engaging China economically and in other fields,’ Cole said.

‘Her “middle-of-the-road” approach to China — engage, but with caution and with clearly defined red lines when it comes to Taiwan’s sovereignty — should have appeal with centrist, undecided, and “light blue” KMT voters. Within the pan-green camp, her willingness to adopt a more “pragmatic” policy of engagement China could lose her votes and support with the “deep greens,” but at the end of the day their relatively small number shouldn’t have too much of an impact.’

And where does she stand on the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty? Cole told me that Tsai’s adherence to the DPP charter, which clearly emphasizes Taiwan’s sovereignty, and the perception that she won’t yield on that fundamental aspect of her platform, should be sufficient to allay fears as she makes her case for engaging China that she would “sell out” Taiwan in the process, ‘something that has haunted Ma and the KMT.’ 

He added: ‘She has relatively little experience running for office, with her bid for New Taipei City mayor in late November last year representing the first time she did so. While some would say she comes across as “bookish,” she has undeniable charm and is Western educated, with good English skills. She’s of Hakka descent and also speaks Taiwanese (also known as Hoklo) fairly well, meaning that she can tap into those resources for support.’