Taiwan, Old Soldiers and James Soong's Last Hurrah?

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Wednesday November 25, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Nearly two decades have passed since 1996 when all eligible Taiwanese began electing their president. Time moves on and in that passage, Taiwanese have gone through a natural and expected learning curve on selection and voting. Slow but sure, they have learned to seek out what qualities they want and expect in their politicians and what they don't. Thus with the upcoming January 2016 presidential elections drawing near, some find it surprising that some of the politicians who were active even back in the one-party state days of the 1980s are still around.

One perspective would be that such persistence suggests a modification of the farewell address of General Douglas MacArthur. In speaking to the US Congress after 52 years of military service, MacArthur closed with this line from an old army ballad, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away." In Taiwan, with some politicians still lingering in the field, one is tempted to parody that line and say, "Old politicians never die, they just fade away... and some of them very slowly."

Politics is clearly a different career path from the military. In the military, in peacetime or war personal ambition as well as conditions influence whether one has a career for life of not. However, in politics, at least in a democracy, one has to also meet the approval of a majority of voters and be elected at regular intervals. The voter will have the final say. Yet some nonetheless return, even after regular rejection. That may account for why there is the current saying going round in Taiwan, namely, "If James Soong is running again for president, you know that another four years have passed."

On the candidate side, in Taiwan's politics, Taiwanese have seen a gamut of ambitions and responses as candidates choose to run or not run. Some like Jaw Shau-kong have used politics as a springboard to other careers. Jaw spent 15 years in different political office, helped found the New Party, and then moved on to run a radio station. Jaw got out on his own accord even though he was still popular and electable.

Others like Shih Ming-teh and Hsu Hsin-liang are clearly reluctant to leave regardless of results. They entered the scene in protest and in pursuit of change before seeking voters' approval. They served time in prison and/or in exile. After prison both contributed to the newly formed Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Shih would gain several terms in the Legislative Yuan in the 1990s but then when he found his ideas no longer struck a chord, he did not want to leave. He could still lead protests, but he could not win office. Nonetheless, he aspires to be president and wants the bar for applications lowered.

Hsu on the other hand spent a majority of his time in exile followed by imprisonment for illegal re-entry. Not being chosen as the DPP presidential candidate, he would run as a candidate for office either in another party or as an independent. Yet, despite losing support and never winning an election for over a decade he too still longs to be in the game. Like moths drawn to a flame, both Shih and Hsu have never been able to find a place outside of politics and despite their continued rejection by voters they loiter in the wings.

James Soong, however, remains a breed apart from all of the above and others. Soong has known political life from many positions and from its highs and lows. He could easily leave politics after a full career yet he has stayed on even as he has begun to fade. Despite his credentials, what the voters say in this coming election will no doubt indicate that this may be his "last hurrah."

Soong's career and influence dates as far back as 1979 when he rallied the nation after the Carter administration moved the US embassy from Taipei to Beijing. He then became the youngest Director General of the now defunct Government Information Office. Additional highlights include how he was crucial in "rescuing" Lee Teng-hui's position as president after Chiang Ching-kuo's death. He was the first elected Provincial Governor of Taiwan in 1994. Later when that position was eliminated and after being refused as the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate for the presidency, he ran as an independent in the 2000 presidential elections. At that time he almost won it all. His narrow loss to Chen Shui-bian was due more to the KMT leaking an alleged scandal about him. Undaunted he founded the People's First Party (PFP) and it proved to be a formidable force for a while. From then on in the voters' evaluation and judgment, he continued in a slow fade.

Soong is still here, even though in this coming election the PFP's chances of survival are not good. Soong's party has been more of a one-man party where, as the saying goes, if you strike the shepherd, the sheep will scatter. Thus while Soong's decision to run for the presidency is no doubt based on the strategy to gain at-large legislative seats for his party, there is question whether his efforts will even be enough to achieve the needed 5 per cent party vote to qualify for at-large membership.

How will it end? With the passing of Soong, after the January 2016 elections, an era will end and the way will be opened for a new class of politicians and a new generation of candidates. Soong could still be of service giving interviews and advice to politicians like Taipei Mayor Ko-P. More importantly he could even make a special, unique contribution to the nation's democracy without holding an office. He could write an insightful memoir of all that transpired in his thirty years of service, a time which was pivotal in in the development of Taiwan's democracy. Not only voters but also historians would appreciate such, but if he does not, Taiwan will still continue as a democracy, and despite the reluctance of some candidates to leave the stage, the voters are the ones who will have the final say.