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DPP Presidential Candidate Tsai Ing-wen

New Platform Stirs Things Up


New Platform Stirs Things Up


Having recently unveiled her Ten-Year Platform, Tsai Ing-wen is determined to show she's leading a different kind of presidential race. Will she really be able to change Taiwan's future?



New Platform Stirs Things Up

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 479 )

Some say she is fighting a "Cold War."

There are less than five months to go until election day. But the news is dominated by sparring between the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and its splinter People First Party. Tsai resembles a sidelined outsider in this presidential campaign.

As observers worried that Tsai was at risk of being "marginalized" in the presidential race, she unveiled a Ten-Year Platform with long-term policies on taxation, education reform, industrial development and welfare that catapulted her back into the headlines.

Obviously, Tsai is attempting to run a very different kind of presidential campaign. Although former President Chen Shui-bian, who knew how to appeal to the electorate, suggested that Tsai needs to do better at moving people's emotions, she insists on talking about long-term policy instead of making short-term pledges to win voters' hearts.

She even has the courage to toy with the party colors.

A sea of bright yellow catches the eye when one steps into Tsai's election headquarters in an office high-rise on Taipei's Chang'an East Road. The motto of Tsai's campaign "Taiwan Next" is written in black across a large yellow arrow on the window. "Taiwan Next" signifies her campaign's pledges to coming generations.

What are these pledges? Tsai has written them down in her Ten-Year Platform, a thick volume containing more than 40,000 Chinese characters.

This time Tsai has chosen black and yellow as her campaign colors. And during the mayoral campaign in New Taipei City last December, Tsai who has always worn the same bob hairstyle and prefers to dress in gender-neutral pantsuits, surprisingly opted for a soft pink.

She is leading the green DPP into a more colorful era.

Cross-strait Ties Major Test

As Chen-yuan Tung, professor at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies of National Cheng Chi University, puts it, Tsai is playing "four middle cards." She has her main support base in central and southern Taiwan. She appeals to the lower middle class, and to small- and medium-sized enterprises. And now she is seeking to win over the middle class as well.

When it comes to cross-strait relations Tsai therefore talks about safeguarding Taiwan's sovereignty rather than speaking about the divisive unification-independence issue. The same goes for cross-strait economic and trade relations. She shuns talking about ideology and instead emphasizes that cross-strait trade needs to be integrated with domestic industrial development, while also keeping in mind income distribution and the wealth gap.

However, middle class voters still have a lot of misgivings about her cross-strait policy.

Tsai, who headed the Mainland Affairs Council during the Chen administration, points out that the most important thing in cross-strait relations is "stability" and that "treatment" of the sensitive relationship with China is more important than "policy."

But the flexibility Tsai maintains in "treating" cross-strait policy might turn out to be her Achilles' heel, as it could make her vulnerable to an assault from the radical independence advocates within the DPP.

And given that Tsai has been criticizing President Ma Ying-jeou for holding cross-strait negotiations without forging "domestic consensus" beforehand, she also needs to first make sure that she is able to align the DPP's various factions behind a cross-strait "consensus."

Wu Nai-jen, one of Tsai's most important election strategists, still believes that while Tsai's character does not predestine her for a role as factional leader, she is certainly able to bring together people with different strengths.

How to Save a Cash-strapped Government?

In recent months the DPP has been marred by severe infighting among its factions over the party primaries for the legislative elections, which will be held concurrently with the presidential election in January, and nominations for the legislators-at-large list. Discontent and mutual accusations ranging from the New Tide faction, which is closest to Tsai, to the factions of Frank Hsieh, ex-president Chen, and former premier Su Tseng-chang caused several severe storms of factional wrangling. But Tsai simply rode them out one by one.

As the party leader Tsai has the right and responsibility to allocate party resources, and, of course, to take a stance on various candidates.

In a recent interview with CommonWealth Magazine, Tsai pointed out that she is drawing on her past experience as negotiator in international trade talks to "deal" with the DPP. More concretely, this means "building a foundation that is acceptable to everyone, on top of different viewpoints."

But couldn't the fierce power struggle among the party's different forces constrict Tsai's room to maneuver politically? "The DPP factions are all aware that if the DPP is not doing well, no one is doing well. So everyone is willing to compromise," declares Wu Nai-jen.

But aside from intraparty difficulties, Tsai's critics also charge that her Ten-Year Platform only contains principles and outlines, while lacking the real "beef." One example is national finances.

After all, should Tsai win the election, she will inherit a debt-saddled government. How does she plan to deal with that?

Tsai shuns mentioning the sensitive issue of tax hikes, only stating that government debt needs to be reined in through "zero" or even "negative" debt growth. She also frankly admits that in the short term the government will still need to rely on a subsidy system to address emergency needs and poverty.

But where is the money supposed to come from?

Tsai notes that one way of increasing tax revenue is by taxing residential property that is not used by the owner himself based on its open market value instead of the much lower book value.

Are Selective Reforms Convincing Enough?

A scholar who did not want to be named complained that the DPP emphasizes transaction and transfer taxes like the securities transaction tax and land value increment tax, while not daring to touch taxes based on possessions such as the land value tax and house tax.

"This is selective reform and not full-fledged reform," the scholar observes, concluding that Tsai seems to have the resolve to implement change, but apparently doesn't dare to take bold moves.

Discussing long term goals, yet avoiding short term issues, she appeals for tolerance, but has yet to map out a specific direction. Taiwan's first female presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen faces the task of convincing Taiwanese voters that when it comes to policy, she is able to transform the impossible into the possible.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz