Political Parties Must Not Discourage Candidates from Running
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
March 4, 2011
The 2012 presidential race is about to begin. The ruling and opposition parties are currently attempting to clear the battlefield, Fierce fighting has broken out within the DPP. The DPP primaries remain unique to Taiwan. The party has issued a high-minded call for "solidarity." Annette Lu is the only candidate with the courage to flout the call. Tsai Ing-wen and Su Tseng-chang, the two candidates with the most influence, have heeded the call. Both are on hold. Neither dares to speak out. If they fail to use the primaries to debate the issues, and express their own reason for running, they will squander a precious opportunity, not just for themselves, but for Taiwan as well.
The DPP has an established timetable. On March 21, the party will begin candidate registration. It will complete its public opinion poll in late April. It will announce its presidential candidate on May 4. The next two months will be the moment of truth for the DPP elites. Annette Lu is not waiting for party approval before registering. She cannot wait and has already declared her candidacy. But she is not the most powerful figure within the DPP. She announced her candidacy at an event commemorating the 2/28 Incident. The result was anti-climatic. This shows that she no longer commands much voter support.
Annette Lu's time has passed. But the recommendations she shouted from the margins of power are worth noting. She suggested holding several primary debates, ideally one in each city and county. Such an intense selection process would produce a candidate able to withstand pressure. She mocked Tsai Ing-wen, saying she remains untested, and that was why Tsai fumbled the 18% preferential interest rate issue.
In fact the model Annette Lu described is the one used in the United States. U.S. presidential primaries last more than six months. Each state adopts a different approach. Some states vote according to party membership, Some states employ party caucus primaries. Caucus members debate then determine which candidate to support. Such a system may appear to waste time and money. But arduous party primaries can bring out the candidates' potential. They can highlight the meaning of the election. During the party primaries, Barak Obama grasped Americans' desire for change. This enabled him to defeat an opponent as powerful as Hillary Clinton.
Some nations lean toward a presidential system. The presidential candidate's personality traits, world view, and experience are all indicators of the candidate's administrative style. These are not something that can be summed up by the candidate's party affiliation. This is true not just in the United States. The Republic of China has held three presidential elections on Taiwan. It elected Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian, and Ma Ying-jeou. All three had ambiguous relationships to their respective political parties. They were all party members. But candidates from the same party often present very different faces to the world. They often offer very different political proposals. They often exhibit very different character traits.
Party primaries in the US are seldom carried out under the banner of "solidarity." They seldom involve such feudal gestures as "persuading a candidate to withdraw." Clinton told Obama: You are still young. Let me go first this time. But Clinton and Obama fought bitterly, until a clear winner emerged. Only then did the loser withdraw. This did not prevent the Democratic Party from winning the presidency. Obama even recruited Clinton, making her part of his "team of rivals."
Taiwan is smaller in scale. Party primaries need not be as hard fought as they are in the United States. But the unique characteristics of individual candidates should not be drowned out by calls for party solidarity. Even supporters of the DPP should be able to understand this. Tsai Ing-wen and Su Tseng-chang have different policies. Su may be convinced "If not me, who?" He may be convinced that "time waits for no man," and that "my time is now." But what everyone wants to know is why he is running. Does his oft repeated "Taiwan Consensus" contain any substance whatsoever? Or is it merely an empty slogan?
Tsai Ing-wen wants to break through the glass ceiling for women, She also represents generational change within the DPP. Recently, she finally laid her cards on the table and said "Taiwan needs its next generation of leaders. Let people under forty see the future." This is indeed something worthy of debate, But amidst calls for DPP "solidarity," all these voices have been silenced. All we see is party deal-making, filled with intrigue, and utterly lacking innovation or creativity.
The DPP has its own unique subculture. But much of this is of Tsai's own making. The DPP Central Committee is powerful. Annette Lu advocated a "traveling political debate." In the end, only one debate remained. One is perhaps better than none. This same conservative atmosphere prevails elsewhere. Some DPP elites hope that Su and Tsai can form a single ticket. They hope the party will not need to hold any primaries whatsoever.
For the DPP the point of soliarity is to seize political power. But for voters, the point of solidarity is to unite under the banner of DPP ideas. Is the DPP seeking solidarity to avoid discussing policy? Especially cross-strait policy? Especially untested policy proposals? Especially policy proposals unable to withstand the test of a presidential election?
In nations leaning toward the presidential system, elections are decided not merely by party prestige. The candidate's style is equally important. Can artificial candidate solidarity create party solidarity? No one knows. But without competition, a party will never find its best candidate.