The campaign for the January 16 presidential elections has taken another huge step forward with the three main candidates announcing the choice of their running mates, all within the space of a week.
The moves were expected since registration for the candidates starts before the end of the month.
Yet, all the attention paid to the running mates will eventually die down, because vice presidents are hardly likely to change the course of the election, or of much of anything.
A vice president is expected to be silent, to spend four or eight years in the shadow of the president, as the backup just in case something goes wrong. After his term is up, he usually fades into obscurity.
The only vice president in recent decades to have moved up to the presidency was Lee Teng-hui, and that happened in 1988, before direct presidential elections were introduced.
The vice presidency is therefore not the stepping stone to the presidency it might often be regarded as. Since 2000, Taiwan has been ruled by former mayors of Taipei City.
The influence of the vice president also seems to be extremely limited. During his first term, President Ma Ying-jeou counted Vincent Siew as his right-hand man. He is one of the most experienced economic officials and technocrats Taiwan has ever had, and was credited with taking the country safely through the storm waves of the Asian regional financial crisis around 1997.
Yet, as vice president, he was apparently unable to help do the same with the Euro crisis. Under Ma, Taiwan has seen its status as one of the four dragons or tigers of the world economy erode to a situation where even 1 percent of economic growth seems like an achievement.
It is therefore difficult to say that a vice president will play a key role in influencing policies. At best, the choice reflects the apparent wisdom of the main candidate, or complements his or her shortcomings and background.
Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, the absolute frontrunner for months, picked Academia Sinica Vice President Chen Chien-jen. Kuomintang Chairman Eric Liluan Chu chose activist, attorney and former labor minister Jennifer Wang, while People First Party Chairman James Soong invited Hsu Hsin-ying, the chairwoman of the newly formed Republic Party or Minkuotang, to team up with him.
For the first time, every presidential ticket will include a man and a woman. While Tsai will be the first woman president if she wins, having a woman on the ticket is not that unique or new, since Annette Lu served as vice president for two full terms, from 2000 to 2008.
All three have some degree of political experience. While Chen and Wang never ran for elected office, both served as Cabinet members, at health and labor respectively. Chen’s father is the founder of a powerful local faction and once served as Kaohsiung County magistrate. They both project the aura of experts, one in medicine and health administration, the other in labor issues.
Hsu is the most political of the three running mates, as a former member of the Hsinchu County Council and Legislative Yuan, though she never served in an executive government position.
She is the only vice-presidential candidate whose age might have been a factor, at 43 the youngest candidate and a counterweight to the same ticket’s presidential hopeful, Soong, who at 73 is the oldest of all candidates. Chu and Wang are both the same age, 54, while Chen is a few years older than Tsai.
The DPP leader presumably picked Chen because of his positive reputation in combating the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which earned him widespread and nationwide cross-party support.
Chu said himself when announcing Wang’s choice that she could complement him. He would be specializing in redressing the economy and handling relations with China, while she would pay attention to social issues and to the interests of less privileged groups.
With Soong, his ticket with Hsu is more about cooperation between two small parties which both broke away from the KMT, the PFP 15 years ago and the MKT just recently.
Much in the media was made about no two single running mates being from the same political party. However, while Chen and Wang were not members of any party, Chen served in a DPP administration and Wang in a KMT Cabinet, making their differences with Tsai and Chu less wide than they seemed.
Despite the relatively limited importance of the choices, the announcement of the vice-presidential candidates gave rise to new exchanges of accusations, with the KMT lashing out at the DPP.
At her first news conference as candidate, Wang blamed all the policies she was faulted for by labor activists on one of her DPP predecessors, Kaohsiung City Mayor Chen Chu, who also happens to chair Tsai’s campaign office.
Legal action to reclaim subsidies from laid-off workers, unpaid leave, low wages for young staff, Wang blamed all those characteristic measures from her period as labor minister on Chen Chu.
KMT lawmakers from their part launched into accusations against Tsai’s running mate, claiming Chen Chien-jen had been certified by a court as guilty of plagiarism. The allegations harked back to a court case in 2007 involving an academic paper officially co-authored by Chen but written by another scholar. At the time, KMT politicians already pilloried Chen, leading him to file a lawsuit for defamation.
Both Wang’s attack on Chen Chu and the lawmakers’ bashing of Chen Chien-jen was likely to backfire, hardly giving the KMT vice-presidential contender a rousing start.
We are only likely to hear more about the running mates again if a debate between the three gets off the ground. In contrast to previous presidential election races, live televised debates have not been a priority yet, but the KMT’s sudden replacement of its presidential candidate last month could be the reason for this.
If the presidential candidates agree to debate each other, there is a strong possibility the running mates will also receive at least one opportunity for a confrontation. Chen and Wang will have to prove that they can shine outside their traditional areas of expertise, while Hsu will have to close the gap with Soong and prove she has the talent to serve as an eventual head of state.
As Wang has already learned, being a vice-presidential candidate means staying in the background and not fuel a debate about a topic that might damage the main person on the ticket.
France even works without a vice president. When a president leaves office prematurely, mostly because of death, new elections are organized.
In the Philippines, president and vice president are elected separately, meaning that candidates from opposing camps could end up as president and vice president, a recipe not recommended to foment political harmony.
Despite occasional clamoring for amendments to Taiwan’s Republic of China Constitution, the vice presidency is not expected to be on the list, while legislative reform, referendums and recall moves are much higher priorities to improve the functioning of Taiwan’s government.
In the end, few voters are likely to base their decision on whom to vote for next January on the vice-presidential candidate. The vice president will continue to be a silent person, taking part in key decisions, but not expected to voice opinions diverging too far from the president’s.
All he or she needs to do, is to prove a level of ability and efficiency similar to that of the main man, or woman, on the ticket.