TAIPEI -- James Soong Chu-yu, the charismatic, China-friendly leader of the opposition People First Party, on Aug. 6 officially entered Taiwan's presidential race. Although he is unlikely to seriously challenge front-runner Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, he could embarrass the ruling Nationalists' pro-Beijing candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, who is struggling in opinion polls.
"We have consistently advocated democracy and freedom, and the right of Taiwanese people to decide for themselves," Soong said regarding the island's relations with mainland China in his campaign announcement in Taipei. "Any change to the cross-strait status quo should be based on the free will of the 23 million people in Taiwan."
A defector from the Nationalist Party with ample government experience, Soong is pursuing a moderate stance on China to win votes from the ruling party supporters underwhelmed by Hung, a deputy parliamentary speaker with no executive experience.
All for one?
Soong's words are a sharp contrast from Hung's remarks earlier this year that Taiwan and China are part of one country. Although Hung has not reiterated that position, many have come to see her as a champion of the island's eventual unification with China, an idea most Taiwanese oppose.
Taiwan and China split in 1949 following a civil war. Beijing continues to claim Taiwan and has not ruled out the use of force to bring the island under its control. Most Taiwanese voters favor the status quo, in which Taiwan runs its own affairs without bothering to declare independence. They typically prefer a leader who vows to maintain stability in cross-strait ties.
Many Taiwanese are skeptical of President Ma Ying-jeou's efforts to forge closer ties with Beijing, seeing them as benefiting big business and undermining Taiwan's sovereignty. Ma's low approval ratings are a drag on Hung's campaign. Recent surveys by both independent and Nationalist-friendly pollsters suggest Soong now enjoys wider support than Hung.
In a survey of 1,000 voters by independent group Taiwan Indicators Survey Research in July, 42.1% of respondents said they would vote for Tsai, 22.8% for Soong and 15.5% for Hung. In a similar poll conducted after Soong's presidential announcement by United Daily News, a media company close to the ruling party, 36% said they would vote for Tsai, 24% for Soong and 17% for Hung.
Local newspapers have reported that some Nationalist lawmakers are clamoring for a new presidential candidate following Soong's entry into the race, but Hung has refused to bow out.
Soong is best remembered for his infrastructure-building as governor of the now-defunct Taiwan Province in the 1990s. But he is also identified with authoritarian one-party rule by the Nationalists when he served as a senior official in the 1980s and '90s.
Following Taiwan's democratization and first direct presidential election in 1996, Soong left the Nationalists in 1999 to run as an independent in the 2000 election after the party declined to nominate him. He placed second and later founded the People First Party.
"Although James Soong has been affiliated with the Nationalist Party, he will not be held accountable for Ma's eight years in government. He will be more appealing to independent and young voters than any other Nationalist candidate," Taiwan's mass-circulation Apple Daily said in an editorial on Aug. 8.
"Hardcore Nationalist voters will also vote for Soong instead of Hung to prevent the DPP from returning to power," the newspaper said.
Soong could also have an impact on the parliamentary elections and affect the strength and stability of the new government. The presidential and parliamentary elections will be held on the same day.
"Soong knows that he is unlikely to win the presidency, but he will use this opportunity to boost PFP's legislative campaigns," according to political commentator Chou Wei-hang.
"The parliamentary elections will see 113 seats contested, and Soong is expected to try striking deals with both major parties.
"It could work, because the DPP may need to join hands with the PFP to secure a majority in the legislature, while the Nationalist Party may also collaborate with Soong because they don't want Soong to get too many votes and embarrass Hung," Chou said.