Former premier William Lai Ching-te (賴清德, b.1959) on March 18 registered his bid to seek the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) nomination as its candidate for the January 11, 2020 presidential elections. The move by Lai is seen as a challenge to the policy priorities espoused by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文, b. 1956) of the DPP since May 2016 and has sparked fears of a rift within the green camp in the lead-up to next year’s all-important elections.
Lai is a member of the DPP’s influential New Tide faction (新潮流系), and his base rests primarily with the deeper-green side of the party, which embraces a more vocal and activist approach to Taiwan’s self-determination. The announcement that he would seek the party’s nomination has been received with enthusiasm among those who argue that President Tsai has been unwilling—or unable—to defend the nation’s sovereignty in the face of growing Chinese aggression. Think tanks and media associated with the deep-green camp, which have been highly critical of the Tsai administration since day one have also released opinion polls, which show Lai leading Tsai by as many as 20 points in an election against Eric Chu Li-lun (朱立倫) of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), the likeliest opposition candidate at this point (Tsai defeated Chu by more than 3 million votes in the 2016 presidential election, with 56.1 percent of the total vote, against Chu’s 31.0 percent, and James Soong of the People First Party a distant third). Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), an independent, former Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) of the KMT, and Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), also of the KMT, are other potential candidates in the 2020 elections (Ko and Han have yet to confirm a bid).
Outside deep-green circles, the reception to Lai’s announcement has been lukewarm at best, with many DPP legislators—including some from the Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) and Frank Hsieh Chang-ting (謝長廷) factions—stating their support for Tsai. Elders and influential figures in Lai’s New Tide faction, including Chen Chu, the secretary-general of the Presidential Office, have also rallied behind Tsai, leaving Lai with little institutional support ahead of the primary.
The International Factor
Despite Lai’s high popularity as mayor of Tainan and appeal within the deeper-green camp; his greatest handicap as he presents his case to be selected as his party’s candidate for 2020 may be his lack of international experience. Conversely, while Tsai—a former trade negotiator—may be accused by her detractors of failing to connect with the grassroots, her ability to maneuver Taiwan in a difficult regional and international context could be her greatest asset. Although Tsai’s cautious handling of cross-Strait relations has given ammunition to her critics in the green camp who accuse her of being too “soft” on China, that same strategy, coupled with her administration’s sustained efforts to engage meaningful democratic partners, has won her many points in foreign capitals, chief among them Washington, DC. While foreign governments will avoid interfering in Taiwan’s domestic politics, there is little doubt that there is a premium on predictability and continuity.
Much doubt, however, surrounds a potential Lai presidency, which many governments abroad would ostensibly regard as a return to a more Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) style of politics, during whose rule (2000-2008) relations with potential partners and allies became frayed. Deep skepticism of the DPP was in evidence during my private interactions with many foreign government officials leading up to 2016 . Much of that doubt has since been assuaged.
Given all this, the selection of the DPP’s next presidential candidate will determine foreign perceptions of the future DPP-led administration’s priorities. The selection of a candidate who is perceived to be more of a risk-taker and who plants his or her flag in deeper-green soil could risk Taiwan the constructive, albeit unofficial, relationships it has been cultivating since 2016 with a number of significant democracies and economies worldwide. As I have argued before, much of that progress has been incremental, and much of it has occurred behind closed doors, which as a result may have contributed to the perception among Tsai’s detractors that her administration has been standing still. As she seeks her party’s nomination anew, President Tsai may well be advised to find ways by which to publicize with the general public—to the extent that will not alienate foreign partners—more of her government’s achievements on the international front since 2016.
While newspaper headlines claiming that Taiwan’s 2020 elections will be “all about the US and China” may be overstating the matter—as previous elections have shown, Taiwanese voters are not atypical in that their voting decisions are just as equally influenced by domestic considerations—it is nevertheless highly important, if Taiwan is to maintain and continue to develop its international space, that a potential future president be seen as responsible by the international community. For all her flaws, since 2016 President Tsai has offered both stability and shown her willingness to work with like-minded allies in the region on a variety of important projects, including democracy promotion, rule of law, transparency, cyber, and China’s “sharp power.”
Tsai and Lai do not fundamentally differ in their long-term objectives for Taiwan; however, where Lai’s public statements have contributed to his image as an “independence worker,” Tsai has kept her cards closer to her chest. Her less confrontational approach has arguably contributed to limiting the amount of pressure Beijing has brought to bear on Taiwan since 2016. In other words, it could have been far worse had a less pragmatic individual been in charge inside the Presidential Office.
Need for Unity
Lai’s declaration of his intention to run for the presidency has also sparked criticism within the green camp that his decision is harmful to unity. The announcement also occurred in the wake of legislative by-elections on March 16 in which the DPP regained some of its momentum following its poor showing in the November 24 nine-in-one elections last year. The election results in November ultimately led to Lai’s resignation as premier and his replacement with Su Tseng-chang (Lai was reportedly offered the position of secretary-general at the Presidential Office but turned down the offer). The DPP’s symbolic victory in the legislative by-elections suggests a deceleration of the KMT’s momentum since the November elections and could serve as a rallying point for the green camp.
The DPP primary and the party’s potential shift toward a deeper-green stance, as presidential candidate Lai could presumably engender, may risk contributing to the further polarization of the current Taiwanese political environment and thereby erode an emerging political commonality that is essential to the nation’s continued survival in the face of a major external threat.
The main point: Former Premier Lai entering the DPP primary has sparked fears of a rift within the green camp in the lead-up to next year’s all-important elections. A more activist DPP candidate for the 2020 presidential elections could complicate Taiwan’s growing relations with a number of important allies while contributing to the further polarization of the political environment in Taiwan.
 Full disclosure: I was an employee of Tsai’s Thinking Taiwan Foundation at the time.