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The New, Opposition DPP

Waiting for Light in the Darkness


Taking over a political party whose image is a negative asset and whose debts surpass NT$100 million, how will Tsai Ing-wen lead the DPP through its darkest hour?



Waiting for Light in the Darkness

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 397 )

Late in the evening on May 18 at the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters on Beiping North Road in downtown Taipei, the atmosphere was quiet and solemn as outgoing DPP chairman Frank Hsieh announced that Tsai Ing-wen had been elected the party's new leader with a 57 percent share of the vote.

Like a matchstick lighting up the black night, Tsai's victory temporarily lifted party members' low spirits.

The DPP is currently going through its darkest period. The indelible darkness that shrouds the DPP stems not only from the lost May 20 presidential election that formally made the DPP an opposition party again. An endless string of corruption cases and never-ending infighting among competing party factions have also left their mark.

Against this backdrop Tsai is a first ray of light, a glimmer of hope.

The county executives and city mayors in the south, where the DPP still holds local government power, the generation that was active in the student movement, and many party workers feel that Tsai might be able to put the stricken DPP on its feet again for a comeback.

That night when Tsai won the party leadership election she did not have much of a smile on her face. In an exclusive interview with CommonWealth Magazine shortly after her victory was confirmed, Tsai said, "You want to congratulate me? I'm not even remotely in a happy mood. This battle is bound to be a hard one."After all, the DPP is a party in search of a light in the darkness.

Before 2000, when Tsai joined the new DPP government as Mainland Affairs Council chairperson, she had no place in the DPP's collective memory. But now Tsai, a party member for less than four years, leads the 22-year-old DPP, whose members and party workers have mostly held membership much longer than her.

Tsai Ing-wen seems, almost imperceptibly, to be fermenting change in the DPP.

Changes Stirring

After Tsai spent three grueling weeks interacting with party workers at the grassroots level, some basic changes began to surface in the party.

She began to steer the DPP away from its traditional male-oriented Hoklo chauvinist culture. Not only is Tsai the first-ever female DPP chairperson, she also is the first party leader who is not fluent in the Hoklo language ("Taiwanese").

Be it in meetings with party officials or in candidate debates prior to the party leader election, Tsai has only given short greetings in Hoklo before delivering all other statements in Mandarin.

DPP Central Disciplinary Committee member Tsai Hsien-hao described the sea change in party spirit at an event in Taipei County. "Fifteen years ago this would have been inconceivable, they would have shouted ‘Speak Taiwanese, speak Taiwanese' from below the podium."

But building on her experience as a skilled negotiator, Tsai never tires of explaining to party members why she is not comfortable speaking Taiwanese. "I am from Fangshan in Pingdong County, but grew up in Taipei. That's why I'm used to speaking Mandarin. After I graduated and started working, I've mostly used English. I'll practice my Taiwanese and often visit the rural areas to talk with you all."Tsai also has the ability to penetrate all walks of society, a trait that the DPP lacked in the past.

Thanks to her educational background and international outlook, Tsai has been able to make friends among the social elite and entrepreneurs. She loves a glass of good red wine and Japanese food. And if local supporters present her with a bowl of shaved ice dessert, she will also readily eat large spoonfuls of this local delicacy.

Tsai's ability to strike a chord with people has to do with her upbringing. Tsai's father was a businessman with a widespread network of friends and acquaintances, so she came into contact with people from all walks of life. As a result, the doctorate holder is equally comfortable conferring with business executives in a boardroom and chatting with local farmers outside a traditional courtyard house.

Why did Tsai, who after leaving the political stage had taken the helm of a biotech firm, decide to jump into the boiling cauldron that is the present-day DPP with its utterly ruined image?

The DPP's Brand Crisis

A DPP-friendly young scholar who did not want to be named revealed that after the presidential election, he and a few middle-aged scholars went to see Tsai and directly presented her with a request: "Please run for the party leadership."Tsai, then sitting in her office at TaiMedBiologics, at first rolled her eyes, dumbfounded.

Subsequently, more than 60 young DPP politicians buried factional rivalry for the first time since the DPP took power eight years ago, to engage in dialogue across the spectrum.

Former DDP lawmaker Lo Wen-chia, who organized a series of activities to encourage dialogue, explains how he sees Tsai's role. "The meaning of Tsai for the DPP is an improved party brand and image. No matter how much effort the DPP makes, nothing compares to putting forward a new chairperson, which says it all."

Motivations both emotional and intellectual lay behind Tsai's decision to take over this boiling cauldron despite the risk of getting her fingers burned.

The emotional motivation originates from a visit to Frank Hsieh's election campaign headquarters on the night of his defeat in the March 22 presidential election. Accompanied by her older brother, older sister and sister-in-law, Tsai saw dejected DPP supporters of all ages cry and hug each other in consolation. Tsai still recalls how the atmosphere of despair and sorrow shook her: "It felt so unbearable that I can't describe it. I felt I had a responsibility to stay involved. I wanted to do my best to console everyone, but at the same time I felt heavy-hearted, wondering what I could do."

The intellectual motivation came from assessing her own ability and willpower.

Thoroughly pondering her options for two weeks, Tsai asked herself whether she had the willpower and ability to take over such a difficult task. "Could I lead a more than 20-year-old political party during its own transformation and as it supports a transforming Taiwan that faces the threat from China and the changes caused by globalization?"

At this juncture, as Tsai Ing-wen has chosen to bind the next stage of her life to the fate of the DPP, the party is also being compelled to enter a new era.

Rebuilding Fighting Strength

Tsai differs from previous DPP leaders in many ways, be it her character, her insistence on remaining above the fray of factional infighting, her professional background or her track record as a government minister.

Tsai, who will turn 52 this August, left academia for politics when she was already in her forties. She says she is very happy that she entered politics that late, because by that time her personality was stable and mature, and she was not easily influenced by others. "Nowadays, you need a stable character if you want to deal with political affairs."

Tsai feels she was lucky to have spent about half of her life before forty studying, accumulating professional expertise, and delving into international affairs.

Sisy Chen, a former DPP spokesperson, thinks that over the past 30 years the DPP's raison d'etre was its fight against the alien regime of the Kuomintang (KMT). But she strongly believes that future party leaders need to live within the global context as global persons and can no longer just live in the local context.

Moreover, the forty-year-olds who cut their teeth in the student movement of the 1980s, and the subsequent generation of party bureaucrats, all got their start through street protests and party activism while they were in their twenties. They are strong when it comes to fighting elections, but lack professional training.

Tsai says she will cultivate new talent and make professionalism the key element of party reform.

The DPP also needs to learn a lesson and get out of its cloistered state of the past eight years by opening itself up to society anew.

The DPP enjoyed its political heyday between 1990 and 1999. Back then it prepared to grab central government power from its strong base in local government. At one time the DPP controlled 12 out of Taiwan's 23 counties and cities, ruling 72 percent of the island's total population.

Back then the DPP was an open-minded, tolerant, progressive and constantly learning political party.

But after the DPP became the ruling party at the national level in 2000, the newly won power went to its head, and the party was so overly gratified by its success that it lost its ability to grasp the big picture, and also lost itself.

Party membership skyrocketed, more than tripling from 160,000 ten years ago to almost 550,000. The number of merely nominal party members rapidly increased, becoming a tool for politicians to amass election funds.

Even worse, over its eight years in power, the DPP developed a culture centered on sharing the spoils, as is reflected in the proverb, "When a man becomes a god, even his chickens and dogs go to heaven."Now many party members only work to consolidate the election chances of their own faction.

Pingdong County Magistrate Tsao Chi-hung, a party member for fourteen years, observes that after the DPP gained central government power, many party politicians became lazy and slack, lost their fighting strength and got involved in all manner of mischief.

The DPP, which before taking power had been known for its integrity, diligence, love for Taiwan, and self-restraint, subsequently betrayed virtually all its values. Even Tsai suspects that the recent scandal in which US$30 million was lost in an illicit money transfer to Papua New Guinea won't be the last to come to light.

As the ruling party, the DPP strayed from its ideals, isolated itself in its citadel of power and fell into a vicious cycle.

Tsai knows that the DPP must leave its ivory tower and look at its future development with an open attitude toward society, Asia and the world.

She believes, "We must open the front door to allow everyone to come on board. We need to step out into the world to broaden the party's horizons and allow more people to participate in putting our ideals into practice. Tsai clearly knows that the DPP needs to adopt a gentle approach if it wants to broaden its social grassroots base and incorporate diverse voices.

When Tsai rolled up her sleeves to contest the party leadership, it seemed as if many middle-of-the-road voters, women and young people that the DPP had lost were starting again to expect something from the party.

A Long Revolution

Tsai's ability and character will definitely help the DPP rebuild its brand and its image. But the DPP is still just a party like many others. For many party members political party competition goes no further than electioneering. They believe that as long as Tsai leads the party or the DPP comes up with a few new issues around which to rally, it will be able to reverse its fortunes.

Incoming president Ma Ying-jeou was able to dress the KMT in new clothes by proposing progressive Taiwan-oriented demands, such as caring for the disadvantaged and respecting the environment. The DPP must now ask itself how it wants to challenge the KMT's brand and image and how it can highlight its own policies in contrast.

This time the DPP faces even tougher challenges than during its previous era as an opposition party. The party must quickly rebuild party discipline, root out corruption and learn and change even faster than the KMT.

Tsai knows that the DPP cannot just rely on luck, but needs to take concrete action. "Party discipline is the basis for party image and public trust. If we don't have the trust of the public, we don't have the capital to march forward."

But Tsai will now have to deal with the hot potatoes of corruption cases and scandals involving outgoing President Chen Shui-bian and other high-ranking party officials. How will she deal with the liabilities left behind by these party seniors who promoted and helped her political career to do justice to those who once supported the DPP? The public will certainly be watching.

For the DPP and Tsai, this is a road of no return. Finding the light at the end of the tunnel will be a long and arduous task.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz