Written by Milo Hsieh.
Image credit: 賴清德/ Facebook.
On January 30th, the Tsai administration finalised its cabinet reshuffle. With former vice-President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) taking the helm of Taiwan’s Executive Yuan as premier, Tsai brings back a former ally as the four-year tenure of former Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) concludes after a series of electoral fumbles by the DPP. Moreover, with Taiwan’s 2024 presidential and legislative election less than a year away, the party also shifts back closer to its founding principles with the election of Vice-president William Lai (賴清德) as chair.
In the leadup to this were the November 26th local election results. Then, DPP suffered a greater defeat than in 2018. Preceding the poor electoral performance was a series of scandals in the DPP’s image. The party insistently defended Taoyuan mayoral candidate Lin Chih-chien (林智堅) under the direction of President Tsai as he was accused of plagiarising his master’s thesis, an allegation later found to be true.
Furthermore, the party’s failure to establish a compelling slogan and cohesive platform failed to attract undecided voters, losing multiple mayorships to the opposition KMT party and other third parties. Following these losses, Tsai stepped down as chair, creating a power vacuum. Vice-president William Lai took advantage of this opportunity and ran uncontested for the position of party chair.
Whereas Tsai represents a more moderate wing of the DPP that seeks to reinvent narratives on Taiwanese nationalism and the status of the Republic of China constitution, Lai represents a more politically entrenched, fundamentalist faction within the DPP that promotes more open and direct discussion of the idea of Taiwan independence.
A Post-Tsai Era and DPP Power Struggles: Brief Overview
Despite Tsai and Lai campaigning together in 2020, the uneasy alliance was forged only after the two, who had many political differences, went head-to-head in an open primary in June 2019. The relationship between Tsai and Lai hit new lows when four influential figures of the radical pro-independence faction, namely Wu Li-pei (吳澧培), Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), Yuan Tseh Lee (李遠哲), and Kao Chun-ming (高俊明) publicly rebelling against the incumbent president.
Although the DPP National Party Congress in 2006 proposed the dissolution of all factions, reality shows that these alliances still lingered. A bureaucrat turned politician, Tsai’s non-partisan’ outsider’ background and ascension to the DPP leadership is unique in a party culture dominated by factions.
Tsai amalgamated coalitions of authoritative figures such as legislator Chen Ming-wen (陳明文), Lo Chih-cheng (羅致政), Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全), and Central Standing Committee member and advisor to the President Huang Cheng-guo (黃承國). Though Tsai denies the existence of an Ing-Faction (英系), as is referred to in Taiwanese media, the loose network of politicians is considered Tsai’s bannermen.
After Tsai stepped down as the party chairperson and is ineligible for a third term as president, she faces no re-election pressure, calling into question her faction’s future, cohesiveness, and viability.
For example, legislator Chen Ting-fei (陳亭妃) of the ”Taiwan Normal Country Promotion Association” (正常國家促進會) faction publicly called for the implementation of rigorous candidate background checks in addressing the possibility of participating in past injustices during the White Terror, widely seen as an attack on incumbent mayor Huang Wei-che (黃偉哲), a Tsai ally accused of being a collaborator of Taiwan’s intelligence services during KMT rule when he was a college student.
Tsai’s affiliations have also prompted criticisms accusing her of appointing politicians associated with criminal organisations to high-level positions in the party and government. Huang Cheng-Kuo (黃承國) is one such figure in the Ing-Faction. Notably, Huang has been called out for his affiliation with organised crime by politicians across the political spectrum, from DPP’s Ho Chih-wei (何志偉), KMT’s Cheng Li-wun (鄭麗文), to TRP’s Su Huan-chih (蘇煥智).
Most recently, the DPP under Lai has moved to introduce measures barring gangsters and ex-convicts from running for office. In other words, Huang, an ally of the President, could not run for party positions such as the Central Standing Committee, raising suspicion over Lai targeting members of the Ing-Faction, which Lai denies.
Shortly after amending the internal rules governing the nomination of party candidates, multiple scandals with figures associated with Lai erupted. For instance, Chen Tsung-yen (陳宗彥), a close ally of Lai, was accused of taking bribes in the form of accepting illegal services from sex workers. The incident dug up events from over ten years ago, forcing Chen to step down as spokesperson of the Executive Yuan less than 18 days after his appointment.
In another conspicuous case, city councillor and Speaker Qiu Li-li (邱莉莉) was among the first politicians to publicly support Lai in the 2019 DPP primaries against Tsai. She was recently accused of bribery in the City Council election and has been indicted by local prosecutors.
Infighting or Unity: Where Does the DPP Go from Here?
Despite Enoch Wu (吳怡農) losing the legislative by-election in Taipei in January, DPP’s Tsai Pei-hui (蔡培慧) recently gained inroads into Nantou, a KMT stronghold district which the DPP has never won, in another by-election.
The Nantou by-election injected a necessary confidence boost, refreshing the prospect of party unity post-9-in-1 election where DPPsupporters called on Lai to expel legislator Kao Chia-yu (高嘉瑜) and city councillor Wang Shih-Cheng (王世堅) for their criticisms of other party members.
Emerging from divisiveness, Lai is forced to carefully navigate domestic and foreign political currents and curate his political image prudently. Should Lai avert political controversies, he will likely emerge as the 2024 presidential candidate for the DPP.
A Shift Back to Fundamental Values?
Tsai Ing-wen was a leader who seized power in the party during its low point after the fall of former president Chen Shui-bian in a high-profile corruption case. Tsai brought the party closer to its progressive value socially and appealed to the political centre regarding Taiwan’s relation with China, riding on the back of the 2014 Sunflower Movement.
With William Lai as the chair of the DPP and a likely candidate for the 2024 election, the party completes a reactionary movement after over ten years of leadership by Tsai. Coming from the party powerbase as Mayor of Tainan, Lai’s open confession of being a “pragmatic advocate of Taiwan independence” has drew concerns over whether he would bring Taiwan back to the eras of Chen Shui-bian when new ideas of Taiwan’s identity were weaponised in such provocative ways that unsettled even the United States.
A provision in the DPP’s party constitution, informally known as the “Taiwan Independence clause,” has been a dormant issue for a long time. However, with high stakes leading up to the 2024 elections, the party will probably face a critical choice: either to continue with Tsai’s legacy or revert to its previous radical approach.
Milo Hsieh is the founder and lead consultant at Safe Spaces, a consulting firm specialising in policy work in the space between the U.S. and Taiwan.