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To run for president, please fork over cash
【Politics】2011-04-09  09:19:30
When Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidates registered for their party's presidential primary on March 25, each of them went in with NT$5 million (US$170,000) to pay the registration fee.

The price of entry to this year's competition is hefty; equivalent to buying a small apartment in Taipei, a Ferrari sports car, or a 5-carat diamond.

This initial hurdle to put one's name on the ballot is, in itself, an early challenge and provides a glimpse into which candidates have the most well-established operations, or the most personal wealth. For those who have neither, their path to victory gets tough from the start.

Hsu Hsin-liang, former chairman of Taiwan's main opposition party, turned in his registration hours before the deadline, saying that it has been his lifelong dream to run for president. But being out of the spotlight for years, he raised his fee only by securing a loan an hour before throwing his hat in the ring.

Hsu said he spent a month trying to gather donations from his friends near his hometown of Jhongli in the northern county of Taoyuan, but no one donated because nobody thought he could win.

One day before the deadline, he reached out to his brother, former legislator Hsu Kuo-tai, who tapped his own business connections to obtain the NT$5 million loan. Hsu Hsin-liang signed a promissory note right before going in to register.

"The loan is zero interest, and does not stipulate a repayment period. But it's on my reputation, so I have to pay it back, " Hsu told the CNA.

Hsu's difficulties encapsulates a Catch-22 situation that underdog candidates face. The only way they can raise money is by proving to donors that they are viable through primary campaigning. But to even join the process, they must raise money first. So the question is, who would ever donate large sums of money to someone who has yet to prove him or herself?

The other, more established candidates had ample wealth to cover the expense.

According to DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen's spokesperson Hsu Chia-ching, Tsai paid the entire registration fee with her own resources. So did the other DPP heavyweight, Su Tseng-chang, according to his spokesman, Lee Hou-ching. Neither candidate had solicited donations.

Collecting a total of NT$15 million from the three candidates, the DPP plans to use the funds to finance their presidential primary process, which includes hosting debates, fielding five telephone polls in April that will determine the party's nominee, and producing any party-wide media materials.

"We are a poor party," DPP spokesman Lin Yu-Chang said. "There is no 'why' in charging so much. We have always done it this way."

Nor are these excessive charges endemic to only the DPP side. Because primaries are funded entirely in-house, each party must accumulate the resources to finance the process.

The ruling Kuomintang plans to charge candidates an NT$2 million refundable deposit for filling out a registration form, as well as an NT$7 million non-refundable fee if someone steps up to challenge President Ma Ying-jeou for the nomination. In fact, Ma paid NT$7 million when he filed for his last primary in 2007.

Because high fees are the norm, even Hsu, the candidate who scrounged to acquire the funds, does not fault the DPP for it.

"I do think it's too expensive, but I can't legitimately say it's wrong, "said Hsu. "The DPP doesn't have a lot of resources, so they require us to pay (for the primary)."

Still, Hsu believes it absolutely prevents underdogs from winning the nomination.

Hsu recalled his decade in exile in the United States, when he watched three U.S. presidential primaries unfold throughout the 1980's. U.S. presidential primaries are financed by state governments, and candidates only pay about US$1,000 per state to register.

Liao Da-Chi, director of the Institute of Political Science at National Sun Yat-sen University, said high fees for registration is a way for parties "to prevent any granny from running for president." Unfortunately, it also narrows the field too much.

"Our high fees only allow certain qualified people to enter the political arena, " Liao said in an interview with the CNA. "Politics in Taiwan is really a game for the rich. It's very undemocratic."

Hsu plans to stay in the race until the DPP picks the winner, although if he quits now, he can get two-thirds of his fee refunded.

If he goes on to win the presidential election in March 2012, he said he will push for the government to fund primaries so that registration fees can be lowered.

"I'm running because I want to put my positions out there. No matter the outcome, I hope my ideas go onto the party platform and eventually become government policy," he said. By Lin Yang, CNA Staff Writer ENDITEM/jc

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