Taiwans 2008 Legislative Elections, Ma Ying-jeou, a Weak Man Becomes Weaker

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Saturday January 26, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Despite what the average observer may think, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is not a monolith. Numerous contrasting points of view exist within it, and power struggles continue beneath the surface. However, like the Republican Party compared to the Democratic Party in the USA, the KMT manages to hide its conflicts, power struggles, and dirty laundry much better than its Taiwan counterpart the Democratic Progressive Party DPP). That being said, the conflicts are alive and well, and remain even after the KMT won big in the recent Legislative Yuan elections.

Evidence of this conflict surfaced back in June 2005 when Ma Ying-jeou ran against Wang Jin-pyng for the chairmanship of the KMT. Ma won the chairmanship by a landslide because of the support and following he had among the "young Turks" of the party; Wang, while not completely accepted by the old guard was still supported by it.

The competition between Ma and Wang for KMT chairperson further exposed the hypocritical side of Ma; it is a side that his party knows quite well but still does its best to hide. Ma had advocated that the contest for chairman be a good clean contest, based on merit etc. Then shortly after his announcement, Ma's camp let loose a string of mud slinging against Wang's character suggesting links to black gold and crooked politics. When questioned about this discrepancy, Ma gave his standard pat response for such. "I know nothing about that," he said and claimed he did not authorize such low-handed attacks. After Ma's victory, Wang to his credit refused to shake hands with Ma despite repeated attempts by Ma to orchestrate such a handshake. Wang was serving notice that Ma might fool the public with his hypocrisy, but within the party they knew him for what he was.

Despite this, however, within the party, a strange symbiotic relationship continued to exist between Ma and the old guard. The old guard tolerates Ma because the party had no one else of significant national prominence and high profile recognition to run for president. They need him. On the other hand, Ma needs the old guard because it controls the money, property, and resources garnered from the stolen state assets confiscated by the KMT during in its one-party autocratic rule. The young Turks, who want change, support Ma but they cannot reach those assets. If Ma is to run a successful presidential campaign, then he needs those resources.

Ma is the designated leader of the young Turks, but he has never been a strong leader. He is the leader more by default than by strength. There is no other person with enough name recognition or high profile in their ranks who could unify the group and propose change. Ma can mouth the platitudes with the best of them and he has the image; they can rally behind him.

Nevertheless, Ma's ineffectiveness became more apparent when he was chairman of the KMT. The first of two big promises he made to the people was that he would get the Pan-blue dominated Legislative Yuan to pass the arms budget to protect Taiwan. After a year and a half of Ma's leadership and numerous votes on the issue in the Legislative Yuan, the military budget had still not passed. Eventually, a token budget was passed but this happened only after Ma had resigned because of his indictment and Wang Jin-pyng took over.

Ma has always been a figurehead. The second promise he failed to keep was his promise to divest the KMT of the "ill-gotten assets" it owned and give the money back to the people. During his year and a half reign as chairman of the KMT, Ma actually did sell off a couple of the many assets, but instead of giving the money to the people or the nation, Ma turned it over to the party to fill the KMT coffers. In the same vein, when Ma had been Mayor of Taipei, the changes he brought about in the city were more cosmetic than substantial. Ma was known more for showing up for photo opportunities than accomplishing anything effective.

So, when the Legislative Yuan elections came round, Ma's lack of influence continued to slump. His campaign manager had expected to be promised one of the Party's lucrative at-large Legislative seats. He was not, instead he was given a lesser party post. When the KMT switched its position to that of boycotting the referendums, Ma was not even informed. As a result, Ma had just promised he would vote on the referendums, when the announcement of a boycott was made public.

Thus, the recent overwhelming victory of the KMT in the Legislative elections indicates that Ma's position within the party will be further weakened and marginalized. With far more than the two-thirds majority, the KMT old guard can override any proposals by the president, regardless of which party the president belongs to. The old guard does not need Ma. Of course if the party has the presidency, there will be many more political appointments available but legislation-wise, Ma is not necessary.

Before the elections, it was anticipated that if the results were close and KMT maintained it slight majority in the Legislative Yuan, it would be crucial to have the president be from their own party. This would be Ma's and the young Turks bargaining chip for a greater share of the power. Now Ma needs the old guard far more than they need him. His weak position has become weaker. In repeated confrontations with the old guard, he has become known as Mr. Cave-in. And while the press and Pan-blue media will still tout his alleged leadership roll along with his fake Mr. Clean image, for those in the know, when real decisions are to be made within the KMT, Ma remains the figurehead and window-dressing. For the people therefore, the ultimate question goes beyond this. If Ma cannot even control and lead his own party, how can he lead the nation? What purpose or contribution will be served by having more window-dressing?