The most dramatic episode of the campaign for the January 16 presidential and legislative elections lies in the days ahead. On October 17, the Kuomintang will hold its special congress which is expected to culminate in the replacement of its original presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, by its reluctant party chairman, Eric Liluan Chu.
The move tops a long and arduous process which was rich in the drama department. Hung was one of two totally unexpected candidates who volunteered for the primary selection process within the KMT. The other one, former Health Minister Yaung Chih-liang, never made it past the first hurdle, leaving Hung in the race as the only contender.
While she had made it to the No.2 position at the Legislative Yuan, few took her seriously as a potential head of state, and her statements about China policy soon alienated even KMT supporters. Yet, she followed all the rules and was proclaimed the official presidential candidate on July 19.
The opinion polls soon showed that the public did not believe in her chances either. As a result, the longstanding rumors about a plot to replace her became true, and the KMT leadership made the necessary moves to keep the drama within the limits of the party regulations.
When Chu is proclaimed as the new KMT presidential hopeful Saturday, the dust should settle and the attention of the public should refocus on the candidates’ policies and ideas to make Taiwan a better place.
Yet, that will not happen immediately. Over the next few weeks, speculation will move to the three candidates’ choices for vice-presidential running mate. As usual, many names will be bandied about and denied by the candidates themselves.
Another potential source of future drama is the Supreme Prosecutors Office Special Investigation Division probe into the KMT replacement listing Chu as a defendant, though at the moment this looks like a politically motivated attack by opposition legislators. It remains to be seen what the SID will uncover, and whether it will have been worth the wait. Then there’s the relationship between the KMT and the People First Party, whose leader, James Soong, will face pressure to withdraw in order not to wreck “pan-blue” unity. Chu will also be asked to give up his position of mayor of New Taipei City in order to concentrate on the campaign.
The weeks ahead will still provide sufficient spectacle and fodder for the guests on TV talk shows to spin elaborate conspiracy theories, but beginning in November at least, the drama should subside and make way for a more mature discussion of policies.
Chu will have the toughest time explaining what he stands for. He did reject Hung’s China policies, calling them remote from traditional KMT viewpoints, but that still leaves him to voice what a new government’s policies would be.
Since most voters hardly know what Chu stands for, he will only have three months left to explain his views to the public, which will not be an easy thing to do. He will also have to defend KMT policies at the end of more than seven years of KMT policies which turned the public away from the party.
While some media have already labeled him “President Ma Ying-jeou 2.0,” he will have to fight hard to shake off that image and to prove that the KMT has changed during the few months that he has been leading the party. That is a virtually impossible task, since the KMT is still in power and still supplying proof that nothing much has changed.
What most voters are interested in, is how the next president will improve their livelihood, raise their wages, provide new and better job opportunities, and improve the general economic climate.
Chu has a lot of explaining to do in that field as well, because the economy has been a particularly weak point for the Ma Administration. The new candidate cannot promise to continue the same economic policies as the current KMT government, because those have taken the country away in the wrong direction.
The economy, always a crucial topic for voters, is stumbling more than ever, with predictions for economic growth this year going from bad to worse. The government started the year with an optimistic prediction of 3 percent, but now even 1 percent looks like a difficult target to hit.
Chu’s tasks will not only include to underline the differences between him and Hung, but even more those between him and Ma, and that could touch on sensitive topics.
In 2008, Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Frank Hsieh also failed to shake off the burden of the Chen Shui-bian years and failed to stop Ma’s advent. It is more than likely that the same thing will now happen, but in the opposite direction, with the KMT’s Chu unable to make voters forget the depressing Ma years.
Even Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, who is leading all possible KMT candidates in the opinion polls, could use a public platform to explain her policies and proposals in a more detailed way.
Soong, if he’s still in the race, has mostly been relying on his reputation as a hands-on governor of Taiwan, but that period is also two decades behind us.
In the run-up to virtually every presidential election since 1996, the media have organized public debates and invited top candidates to exchange views and to respond to questions from academics, journalists and social activists.
With another alternation of power imminent, the 2016 elections could be as important and historic as those in 2000 and 2008, so there is no excuse for the candidates not to participate in at least one great debate.
Tsai can explain her China and economic policies to a public eager to learn more about her, Chu can show voters what the differences are – if any – between him on the one hand, and Hung and Ma on the other hand, and Soong can also show the public why he should still be running in 2016.
The presidential campaign needs to move away from the drama and focus on the issues to let voters make an informed decision on January 16.