By Chris Wang.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) thought it had President Ma Ying-jeou beaten in the presidential election in January last year. But ultimately the party saw its candidate Tsai Ing-wen lose by the margin of six percentage points, or about 800,000 votes. The widespread defeatism among DPP supporters and party members was easy to understand as they figured a victory was within reach. Lackluster governance during Ma’s first term and a brilliant DPP presidential candidate in Tsai was cause for optimism that proved misplaced.

A quick bout of soul-searching after the election concluded that the DPP lost for a number of reasons: its vague China policy, fears that a DPP administration would lead to stagnant trade exchanges with China, several business tycoons’ endorsement of the KMT’s cross-Strait postures and untimely jabs from Washington.

All of the reasons pointed to one area: China. That was why the talk of a “new attitude toward China” dominated most post-election discussions and the chairman election campaign after Tsai’s resignation. Soon after Su Tseng-chang, who competed in the 2008 presidential election as Frank Hsieh’s running mate, was elected as chairman, the DPP began its plan to establish a China Affairs Committee. Su’s campaign pledge was that, unlike its Department of China Affairs, the China Affairs Committee would be a policy-making platform that dictates the DPP’s China policy.

At the same time, DPP members engaged in heated debates over the “new direction” of the party’s China policy and found out that it has little room to maneuver in that area because, while Beijing vehemently opposes Taiwan independence, Taiwan independence was part of the DPP’s founding spirit and core values.

The DPP has yet to announce its official position on the matter but a stance has been revealed in the comments of several party heavyweights, including Su. For now, the party will still abide by its 1999 “Resolution on Taiwan’s Future”, which defines Taiwan as a sovereign country separate from China, while acknowledging the Republic of China (ROC) as the country’s formal title.

Su snubbed Hsieh, who was interested in heading the China Affairs Committee, and named himself as the convener of the committee, which would no longer be a policy-making body and would only call a meeting every two months. This move further alienated Hsieh and Su, who have been longtime political rivals inside the party, and prompted Hsieh’s controversial China visit in October last year, which made the former premier the first senior DPP politician to visit Beijing. It was obvious that Hsieh, who has the most moderate China policy among DPP heavyweights, was determined to walk his own path.

Judging from the political reality, the priority for Su, who many believe is eyeing on a 2016 presidential nomination, is not China policy but how the DPP performs in the seven-in-one local elections in 2014. If the DPP does poorly, Su would have to step down as chairman after a two-year tenure according to the party’s tradition and see his chances of winning the presidential nomination fade away.

Meanwhile, Tsai Ing-wen has established her own foundation, the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, and has devoted most of her energy to charitable work and public policy research. Public support for Tsai remains strong as most people believe she is interested in making another run at the presidency in 2016.

The basic situation of the DPP one year after Ma’s re-election is clear. Many observers have described the current DPP as a “two-headed monster” or “a party with two suns”, with Su and Tsai vying for the next presidential bid and Hsieh focusing on his China explorations.

While the DPP was able to gain ground due to Ma’s failed governance, it remains in a difficult situation while the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) enjoys a strong majority in the legislature. And while Ma, who also serves as KMT Chairman, has trouble leading its legislative caucus, the coordination between Su’s party headquarters and the DPP caucus is faring no better.

Various surveys have showed that despite low levels of approval for Ma and the KMT, the support rate for the DPP is only a shade over 30 percent. The DPP realizes that the issue of independence and unification, while important, no longer plays a dominant role in the political agenda and it has to “re-connect” with the public, the communities at the grassroots level and the civic movement to win back people’s trust. However, civic groups and non-governmental organizations, which were strong DPP backers but became alienated from the party during the Chen administration due to what they claimed to be “the party’s betrayal to the civic movement,” remain suspicious. For instance, during the recent anti-nukes campaign the organizing groups demanded the DPP “take a back seat” in the national campaign.

In the discussion of domestic and foreign policy, it remains difficult for the DPP to erase an image of “opposition for the sake of opposition” .

A further distraction for the party is the ongoing situation of imprisoned former president Chen Shui-bian, who is serving an 18-and-a-half-year sentence for corruption and is suffering from serious depression and various complications after four plus years in prison. While the party has urged Ma to grant Chen a medical parole and improve his prison conditions, hardcore Chen supporters blame the party for not doing enough for Chen and trying to keep a distance from the former president.

Despite these issues, the DPP’s prospects for important municipal elections in 2014 remain good, if only because Ma and the KMT have done so poorly and voters have expressed strong mistrust in the current administration. In local elections, the DPP can avoid the sensitive topic of its China policy and focus on its strength of local governance: all six DPP mayors and commissioners ranked in the top 10 in the approval rankings conducted by the Commonwealth Magazine last year.

But while Tainan Mayor William Lai, 53, has been described as a promising political star for the DPP, the party appears to be trailing the KMT in nurturing future prospects, and most senior DPP politicians refuse to ride into the sunset and allow the younger generation to take center stage. Looking to the future, the 2016 presidential nomination will likely feature competition between Su and Tsai and the DPP’s future direction will not be clear until the conclusion of the local elections next year.

Chris Wang is politics correspondent for the Taipei Times. He writes here in a personal capacity. 

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