It wasn’t supposed to go so smoothly. After winning both the presidency and a majority of the legislative races in last month’s general elections, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was supposed to fall into a pit of infighting, with the party’s various factions vying for the top jobs of speaker and deputy speaker in Taiwan’s congress, the Legislative Yuan.

The DPP’s Kao Jyh-peng (高志鵬) of former premier Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃)’s faction was supposed to accuse members of the DPP’s New Tide Faction as no better than the Nationalist Party (KMT), and refuse its pick for speaker. Legislators Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) and Cheng Yun-peng (鄭運鵬) were supposed to be labelled “bandits”, and viewed suspiciously by other DPP legislators. And DPP elders Chen Chu (陳菊) and Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) were supposed to nurse old grievances, and refuse to come together over a single speaker candidate.

But none of those things happened, and the DPP did something extraordinary instead: its factions stood together in a show of party solidarity, and voted unanimously for Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) as speaker and Tsai Chi-chang (蔡其昌) for deputy speaker. Su, a close confidante of President-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), said in her inauguration speech that the convening of the Legislative Yuan’s 9th legislature would be marked by “openness and professionalism” and free of “shady dealings.” Su’s speech echoed campaign promises made by Tsai for legislative reforms that would “meet the people’s expectations.

The DPP’s factions have been both a source of strength and of weakness. The differences in opinions make for a truly democratic party, a party where internal competition is bred into its fabric. However, managing those differences has not been easy in the past, with ugly spats of infighting that later become media headlines. In a 2013 poll by the green-leaning Taiwan Brain Trust, factional infighting was cited as the DPP’s most unlikable trait, at 73%.

But the DPP appears to have turned a corner, appearing professional, united, and well-prepared to be Taiwan’s ruling party. Factional infighting was minimal compared to the rival KMT, whose backstabbing and last-minute candidate swapping was as horrifying to watch as a car crash in slow motion. Although the DPP’s factions increased in size with the party’s massive 68-seat victory in last January’s legislative election, their power has been whittled down under Tsai, who concurrently holds the posts of both DPP chairperson, and President-elect. In addition, the rise of the DPP’s non-aligned local councilors, professional-type legislators, retiring party elders, and a new vigour for political reform has meant the DPP’s factions do not enjoy the same prestige they once held.

In short, the DPP’s factions are being shown the door, and being asked to respectfully leave the premises.

A History of Factions

Factional groupings have been a core feature of the DPP since the party’s founding nearly three decades ago. The DPP functioned as a ‘big-tent party’ for opposition politicians, crusading human rights lawyers, dissident activists, and radical writers’ associations, all fighting together for the prospect of a democratic Taiwan.

The number of different voices represented in the DPP has often meant fierce inter-party competition during the candidate selection process for Taiwan’s local and national elections, and for positions within the government when the DPP is the ruling party. Factions also compete within the party’s top-decision making bodies, the 30-person Central Executive Committee, and the 17-person Central Standing Committee.

The DPP’s factions have acted as a double-edged sword for the party. While they have made the party more democratic, vibrant, and more representative of Taiwan’s diverse society, they also have hurt the party at times, when factions appeared self-interested. The DPP carried along its factional essence as it made the transition to a ruling-party during the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration from 2000 to 2008. Early into Chen’s first term, he remarked that many DPP members put factional concerns over national interests. “This might be the only chance the DPP has to rule, because of its failure to transform itself,” said Chen.

Factional infighting became so heated at one point, that all factions were officially disbanded in 2006. Factions were not allowed to recruit new members, accept membership fees, or hold exclusive meetings. However, the factions continued to survive, with the well-organized New Tide (新潮流) remaining the DPP’s largest faction, with other DPP members re-grouping around the party’s powerful elders.

Competition again heated up after Chen left office, with the party’s Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃) and the New Tide faction all positioning themselves for power under the fledgling new chairperson, Tsai Ing-wen. The party’s infighting even made it into a Wikileaks cable in 2011.

But Tsai has proven herself more capable in dealing with the DPP’s factions in her second-term as chairperson, and the party appears far more professional and united as a result. She has employed party members and personnel across party factions, and cultivated loyalty towards her leadership without accusations of playing favourites. Her most recent confidantes and senior election members have included Chen Chu (陳菊) and Tuan Yi-kang (段宜康) of New Tide, Cheng Yun-peng (鄭運鵬) of the Su faction, Chao Tien-lin (趙天麟) of the Hsieh faction, and Liu Chao-hao (劉櫂豪) of the Yu faction.

In addition, Tsai’s dual role as chairwoman and president-elect makes her the most powerful member of the DPP. Her coalition-building abilities and overall influence within the party allowed her to play the role of kingmaker during the selection process of Speaker of the Legislative Yuan. Tsai preferred Su Jia-chyuan, her long-time confidante, and 2012 vice-presidential running mate. Su’s opponent for the speaker position, the well-connected party caucus convener Ker Chien-ming (柯建銘), was reported to have the backing of the DPP’s largest faction, New Tide. But in an intriguing turn of events just days before the speaker selection, Ker dropped out of the race, and threw his support behind Su. Tsai worried Ker’s reputation of shady backroom dealings with the KMT during caucus consultations would hurt Tsai’s pledge to clean up the Legislative Yuan, and was reported to have lobbied the New Tide to back Su over Ker. Ker eventually conceded he did not have the votes, and gave up his dream of being the Legislative Yuan’s first non-KMT speaker in its 90 year history. Clearly, the factions will have a difficult time challenging Tsai in her current position of strength.



Out With The Old, In With The New?

But the DPP’s factions will face other problems in maintaining their previous levels of prestige within the party, including growing demands for a professional ruling party and legislative reform. In addition, the DPP’s non-affiliated party faction legislators, and professional-type legislators have grown in size and scope in this January’s district-seat and party-vote legislative races.

As Gwen Wang points out in her excellent piece, the convening of Taiwan’s 9th legislature may have opened “a new chapter in the history of Taiwan’s legislative body.” With a mix of generational, gender, and ethnic diversity changing the dynamics of Taiwan’s legislative body, the DPP may be more inclined to reform the Legislative Yuan’s culture of secret backroom dealings through caucus consultations, which has benefited DPP factions in the past.

In addition, many of the DPP’s most influential figures are getting long in the teeth, and may not be able to carry the same level of influence within the party. Rumours have already circulated that 67-year old former Premier Yu Shyi-kun, a powerful party elder within the party, with close links to at least six sitting legislators, may soon be retiring from politics. 65-year old Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu (陳菊), who also has a sizeable faction in the Legislative Yuan of her own, is also expected to retire following the end of her third mayoral term. 69-year old Frank Hsieh and 68-year old Su Tseng-chang also have factions of their own within the current Legislative Yuan, but will likely be constricted in any factional power plays owing to Tsai’s current strength within the DPP.

It is also difficult to conceive of new party elders taking the places of Su, Yu, Chen, and Hsieh once they retire from Taiwan’s political scene. Certainly, mayors William Lai (賴清德) of Tainan, Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) of Taichung, and Cheng Wen-tsan (鄭文燦) of Taoyuan have potential to become powerful voices within the party, but do not enjoy the same prestige as Frank Hsieh or Chen Chu, both considered founders of the DPP. There are also reports that Lai and Lin have had difficulties engendering strong allegiances from legislators in their cities, although Cheng may have more success in this regard.

Also, the current roster of DPP members sitting in the ninth legislature has an overwhelming number of non-faction orientated legislators. After being sharply criticized for stacking the 2012 party list vote with faction politicians, Tsai Ing-wen successfully pushed more than a dozen “professional-type” legislators who specialize in resolving specific social, political, or economic problems onto the DPP’s party list, who hold no particular factional allegiance. While the DPP’s eighth legislature in 2012 only featured three professional-type legislators (Yu Mei-nu (尤美女), Chen Chieh-ju (陳節如), and Wu Yi-chen (吳宜臻)), the ninth legislature has a staggering twelve professional-type legislators, (Wu Kun-yu (吳焜裕), Wu Yu-chin (吳玉琴), Mary Chen Man-li (陳曼麗), Wang Jung-chang (王榮璋), Kolas Yotaka, Karen Yu Wan-ju (余宛如), Chou Chun-mi (周春米), Chung Kung-chao (鍾孔炤), Wellington Koo (顧立雄), Frida Tsai Pei-hui (蔡培慧), Yu Mei-nu (尤美女), and Lin Chun-hsien (林俊憲)).

This election cycle also saw an increase of non-factional affiliated legislators who do not owe their career development to a specific party elder or faction, or who never found it necessary to rejoin a faction over they were officially disbanded in 2006. These legislators include newly elected Tsai Shih-ying (蔡適應), Wang Ting-yu (王定宇), Yang Yao (楊曜), Liu Chien-kuo (劉建國), Lee Chun-yi (李俊俋), and Huang Wei-cher (黃偉哲).

Until We Meet Again…

The DPP’s party factions are by no means on the verge of immediate disintegration, but they will face enormous challenges in prospering under a powerful Tsai Ing-wen, and the forces of change already in motion within society and politics. The DPP is well aware of the public’s perceptions of factional struggles, and the damage it does to their image as a ruling party.

However, if Tsai’s positions as chairperson or president are weakened over the course of her term, she will have difficulty controlling the various factions’ ambitions for positions within the government, and within the party itself. Furthermore, despite a larger than ever presence of professional-type and non-factionally affiliated legislators shaping the party’s image in the Legislative Yuan, the proportion of factionally aligned legislators is also considerable, with the DPP’s New Tide, Hsieh, Su, and Yu factions all occupying at least 5 seats each.

Will Tsai be able to sustain the DPP’s vigour for reform, or fall victim to messy infighting much as Chen Shui-bian did? Stay tuned for the second part of our discussion on the DPP’s factions.

(Feature photo of DPP major leader Ker Chien-ming and Speaker of Parliament Su Jia-chuyan, by Lee Kun Han)


Aaron Wytze Wilson

Aaron Wytze Wilson is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Taipei, Taiwan. He tweets at @aaronwytze.

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