One thing can be said almost for sure: James Soong Chu-yu (宋楚瑜) has no plans to become Taiwan’s next president. You can’t describe both the KMT and the DPP as “unconstitutional” for not throwing themselves behind a goal of “reunification” with China, and expect to outdistance both president Ma Ying-jeou (KMT) and Tsai Ing-wen (DPP), come election day. That more than 30 per cent of voters haven’t made up their minds yet (that’s what Soong said in his interview with the BBC‘s Chinese service, published on Friday, GMT) doesn’t mean a lot, when assessing Soong’s prospects. Provided that the undecided are going to cast their vote at all, the majority of them – be they 30 per cent of the electorate, or more, or less – will make a choice between incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou and opposition leader and presidential nominee Tsai Ing-wen.
It’s not the first time that Soong runs for president. In the 2000 presidential elections, he split the KMT’s electoral base by running as an independent, after losing the KMT’s presidential nomination to Lien Chan. And despite being a rather pro-Chinese candidate, Soong only narrowly lost to Chen Shui-bian (the oppositional DPP’s presidential nominee, and a strong advocate of international recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty). Lien Chan, the KMT’s official candidate, came in third.
Back then, I heard many Chinese – and some Taiwanese – people speculate that all this had been a premeditated plan by outgoing president Lee Teng-hui to pave the way for Chen Shui-bian’s victory, to further the non-Chinese side of Taiwan’s identity. There are no run-off ballots in Taiwan’s presidential elections. It’s first-past-the-post.
Ma Ying-jeou certainly has better chances to get re-elected in January, than Lien Chan had to become president in 2000, if recent opinion polls are anything to go by. And one of the reasons is that Soong won’t come in second this time. He will come in third. But why then did he decide to run for Taiwan’s highest office at all?
Revenge against the KMT could be one explanation. Soong most probably knows how to cultivate old grudges. To spoil Ma Ying-jeou’s chances may mean more to him than “reunification with China”.
Another motivation may be ongoing negotiations with the KMT – they are most probably still going on. The KMT has long accused Soong of having taken NT-$ 240 million of assets from the KMT in 1999. That wasn’t necessarily unauthorized, but the way KMT wealth is allocated among its leading officials is by no means transparent, and judicial means to fight political enemies are routine tools in Taiwan. Soong may also still be seeking concessions in the campaigns for the Legislative Yuan – that KMT legislative candidates should give way for his own People-First Party’s candidates. (I’m not aware of a law or regulation that would bar candidates from throwing in the towel, even last-minute, in favor of another party’s candidate.)
But a more respectable reason shouldn’t be left out of the account either. There certainly are Taiwanese citizens who share Soong’s expressed view that China is “a member of the family”, and therefore “more than a friend”*). Soong’s candidacy will give these citizens an opportunity to vote for a candidate who seems to be closer to their views on China (no matter if that, or something else, motivated him to join the race).
Another question seems to be if China’s leaders wanted Soong to throw his hat into the ring. If so (but that’s a big “if”, of course), this would suggest that Beijing is much less worried about Tsai Ing-wen becoming president, than what most utterances from Beijing, or their reflection in the international media, would suggest – and that Ma Ying-jeou either never was, or no longer is, quite the cornerstone in China’s Taiwan policy.
*) 一家親, BBC, November 25
“Too strong to describe it as pressure”, Taipei Times, Nov 27, 2011