Defects in the Republic of China's Primary System
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
February 13, 2008
During the Spring Festival, Blue and Green camp presidential candidates competed with each other making courtesy calls on religious figures. This inadvertently provoked talk of "internal conflict" within the DPP. The hard-won appareance of internal harmony within the Hsieh/Su ticket came into question. During the primaries Su Tseng-chang and Frank Hsieh pummeled each other. Circumstances eventually forced them to become partners, but they still hold grudges. Voters remain concerned whether Hsieh and Su are truly united and able to govern.
When Hsieh and Su attacked each other, four candidates were in competition. These four candidates enjoyed grossly unequal access to resources. One of the main reasons is that the DPP lacks a fair and objective primary process. As a result, Lu, Yu, Su, and Hsieh each reverted to their basest instincts. Add to this Chen Shui-bian's capricious behavior, Yu Shyi-kun's manipulation of the electoral system, pro-Green media clamor, and the result was a primary in which every candidate went straight for the jugular. Not only was no quarter given to comrades, the party was ripped apart. Internal conflict of this kind is no accident, nor is it confined to Hsieh and Su.
Contrast this with the party primaries being held in the United States. Not only is the timeframe longer, the mobilization is more massive. But because the two parties have an unwritten code of conduct, their party primaries do not degenerate into bloody hand-to-hand combat destructive of the party and the nation. Their sitting president is not permitted to interfere in the primaries or hand-pick his successor. Party officials keep their distance from their own candidate. These ought to be the minimum standards for political party conduct. Yet on Taiwan they are constantly trampled into the dust.
Outside observers uniformly favor the Democratic Party in the upcoming election. They have high hopes for either Clinton, an icon of feminism, or Obama, an icon of ethnic progress. The Republican Party uses a winner-take-all delegate awards system. Therefore it is able to choose a candidate earlier on. The Democratic Party on the other hand, uses a proportional representation system. This has led to an ongoing see-saw struggle between Clinton and Obama. To avoid detriment to the larger scenario, to avoid splitting the Democratic Party and to defend against a unified Republican Party, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean has asked the two camps to arrive at a decision soon. Only then can the Democratic Party adopt a unified stand against the GOP.
It is worth noting that despite such a hard-fought election, both the Clinton and Obama camps have maintained the necessary decorum. They have rejected mud-slinging and unnecessary personal attacks. When former president Bill Clinton stumped for his wife, he made reference to African American minister Jesse Jackson's primary victories in South Carolina. He said such victories didn't mean Obama was any closer to the presidency. This was seen as a serious slip of the tongue and cost Hillary points. Clearly voters expect far more from them than politicians imagine.
The restraint shown by the Clinton and Obama camps is the result of their concern for the good opinion of Democratic Party voters. Clinton and Obama each have their own strengths. Each has the support of different ethnic groups. Together they are indestructible. Separately they each have their own merits. But if the two attack each other during the primaries, engaging in mutual vilification, both will be harmed. The result will be harm to the interests of the Democratic Party and the American values their supporters hold dear. That is a risk neither party can afford to take, and that is why no one dares to take such a risk.
During last year's DPP primaries Su Tseng-chang accused Hsieh of accepting illegal political donations. He blasted Hsieh's "One China Constitution" thesis. He even called Hsieh "devious," a characterization that has stuck. Frank Hsieh compared Su's ambition to that of Wang Mang. He characterized Su and the New Tide Faction as evil incarnate. The two sides may not have lost, but they were both harmed, because they stooped to character assassination too vicious to smooth over. How can anyone believe the two could ever truly cooperate after that?
Nor was the Green Camp alone. The Blue Camp lost the presidency in 2000 because a struggle between Lien and Soong split the KMT. Even today, the grudge between Wang Jying-ping and Ma Ying-jeou has not been resolved. This is because the two parties lack an effective and convincing primary process. Because the two parties leave no quarter during the primaries, by the time the election rolls around, they have even fewer scruples about their methods. They will play the "You don't love Taiwan" card, or even accuse their opponents of "treason to Taiwan" as a matter of reflex. For the sake of selfish political advantage, they have debased the election process. Whither democracy?
When we compare the ROC presidential election to America's presidential election, all we can feel is disappointment and embarrassment. The Republic of China is about to celebrate its centennial. Eight years after regime change, the two largest parties still lack a presentable primary process. What right do they have to talk about progress? Politics is not a game for political elites. If they cannot learn self-restraint, they should at least acknowledge the electorate's capacity to distinguish right from wrong.