KMT’s Change of Guard: Ma’s Power Play in Taiwanese Politics

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 15

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in Taiwan will elect its next chairman on July 26. On that date, tens of thousands of KMT members will cast their votes for their former party chairman–turned-president, Ma Ying-jeou, who will be the only candidate on the ballot. Ma’s decision to concurrently serve as KMT chief has provoked a mixed response in Taiwan, even though Ma is following the KMT’s time-honored tradition of interlocking party-state leadership (i.e. Lee Teng-hui, Chiang Ching-Kuo and Chiang Kai-shek). The president’s action drew sharp criticism from scholars and the mass-media for the lack of transparency with which his decision was made. Ma had to be reminded by reporters of a pledge he made while campaigning for president in 2007 that he would never serve as the KMT chairman if elected, because, as he said, “the president should be devoted full time to government affairs" (Central News Agency [Taiwan], Oct. 3, 2007). The president, however, claimed that his decision to serve as KMT Chairman was prompted by his “sense of responsibility for the nation’s competitiveness and government performance” (Taipei Times, June 17).

Wu Poh-hsiung, the current party chairman since April 2007, was reportedly humiliated by the incident. Wu told friends that the post of KMT chairmanship would be Ma’s to take, but he was never directly informed that Ma wanted his job (China Times [Taiwan], June 10). After months of media speculation, fed by leaks about a simmering power struggle between Chairman Wu and President Ma, Wu declared in the last week of May that he was ready to step down as party chairman, paving the way for Ma’s subsequent announcement of his bid for the seat.

Why Ma Wants the Party Post

Since assuming office in May 2008, Ma’s administration has been challenged by the lack of coordination between the ruling party, the government, and the “disobedience”—a term used by KMT officials—of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliament). The parliament failed to confirm Ma’s appointees to the Control Yuan (the government watchdog) and Examination Yuan (in charge of validating the qualifications of civil servants), which are both part of the five branches of the Taiwanese government (Taipei Times, June 17; Liberty Times [Taiwan], June 28). Moreover, the president was only able to muster enough political will and votes from parliament, in which the KMT has a commanding 3/4 majority, to pass half of the 50 bills on the priority list that was submitted by the Executive Yuan (the executive branch of the Taiwanese government) during the legislative session that ended on June 16. Ma even singled out nine “must-pass” bills, only four of which were enacted before the session ended (Taipei Times, June 29).

The KMT caucus in the Legislative Yuan (LY—Taiwan’s parliament) reportedly did not make much of an effort to support the president’s legislative agenda by passing the priority bills. Therefore, the KMT chairman, Wu Poh-hsiung, failed his responsibility to ensure that KMT lawmakers toe the president’s line (Taipei Times, June 29). Experts believe that another reason why Ma decided to take over the party chairmanship may be because of the lack of coordination between the presidential office, cabinet, KMT headquarters and the KMT caucus at the outset of the new administration. Finally, many KMT lawmakers have their own private interests at stake, and will not necessarily see eye-to-eye with the president’s broader agenda (Taipei Times, June 29). For instance, in the amendment to the Act for the Punishment of Corruption, which the Executive Yuan sought to amend by adding a new provision that all civil servants failing to explain the sources of their incomes should face prosecution, some KMT lawmakers demurred, and a watered down version ruled that only officials indicted on corruption charges would be subject to the new rules. Clearly, many KMT lawmakers do not consider the Cabinet’s priority bills urgent and stall them for various reasons, key among them being that many KMT lawmakers are veteran politicos and policy experts, and they consider Premier Liu Chao-shiuan and other cabinet members as "newcomers" who lack necessary expertise.

Removing Potential Rivals

Ma’s apparent power grab is interpreted by political insiders as an attempt to subdue or remove potential rivals and challengers inside the KMT. One alleged target is LY Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, who lost the KMT chairmanship in July 2005 to Ma, but still commands considerable power and influence as the speaker of the parliament and is able to hold Ma’s power in check.

Take, for instance, the control over the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), a publicly-funded organization established under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government in 2003 with bipartisan support to promote democracy and human rights worldwide. Since its founding, the TFD’s chairman has been Speaker Wang, and a board of directors composed of government officials, lawmakers from both the pan-green (DPP) and pan-blue (KMT) coalitions, independent scholars and business executives.

Not long after President Ma took office in May 2008, Foreign Minister Francisco Ou approached Wang at Ma’s behest to suggest a change in TFD’s personnel. Chairman Wang reportedly rebuffed and thwarted the demand, since it is widely believed that he supports the present TFD management team headed by Executive Director Wen-cheng Lin, and is committed to the independence and bipartisanship of the TFD. President Ma was compelled to compromise, but renewed his push to reshuffle the TFD in June, allegedly under the National Security Council’s directive (Taipei Times, June 24). Yet, as a result of U.S. criticism and pressure from organizations like Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy, as well as the U.S. House of Representatives, President Ma again conceded and delayed TFD personnel change to a later date. Although Chairman Wang has tried hard behind the scene to keep the TFD free of complete KMT control, Wang kept noticeably silent over the current controversy in what seems like an effort to hide his diminished influence.

Ma’s first move to erode Wang’s base of support and engineer the defection of his political allies in the parliament through co-opting and "divide and rule" tactics was to appoint Deputy LY Speaker Tseng Yung-chuan to head his campaign office for KMT chairmanship. The media speculates that Tseng could replace Wang as the next LY Speaker (Formosa Weekly, July 16).

As KMT chairman, Ma will be in a key position to nominate candidates for elections to the parliament and other posts, and decide the next LY speaker and deputy speaker, as well as appoint dozens of KMT’s LY members-at-large. LY speaker Wang may be appointed to be one of the KMT vice-chairman, in which case he must defer to the chairman and will have much less power and influence afterward. As Ma incorporates the legislative body into his power base with the KMT Central Standing Committee dictating the legislative agenda, the room for independent political thinking and actions by KMT lawmakers will also likely be drastically curtailed.

Control over Power and Policy

In a meeting with KMT Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung at the Presidential Office on May 24, President Ma said the KMT-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) platform would no longer set the agenda for cross-Strait dialogue. Ma told Wu that “today political parties can no longer dictate government polices” (Taipei Times, May 25) [1]. The occasion that Ma chose to deliver this ultimatum was right before Wu embarked on a trip to China to attend a KMT-CCP Forum on May 25.

Ma appears keenly aware of Beijing’s "united front strategy," which skillfully tries to manipulate political forces inside the KMT and Taiwan’s young democracy. In April 2005, CCP General Secretary and President Hu Jintao invited Lien Chan, the KMT chairman and its unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2000 and 2004, to visit China and set up the KMT-CCP Forum. This platform gave Lien, the KMT’s honorary chairman and leader of the conservative faction (or "old guards") within the party since July 2005 and Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung opportunities galore to fraternize with Hu in China and set the tone for cross-Strait rapprochement (China Times, July 7). Even after Ma took over the presidency, Beijing’s plot to use Lien and Wu through the CCP-KMT Forum to advance Beijing’s Taiwan agenda has continued.

The following episode of the 2008 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Peru clearly illustrates the aforementioned point. China has blocked Taiwan’s heads of state from attending such international gatherings since 1993—so  Ma had to send a proxy. The president’s first choice was Dr. Fredrick Chien, who held such high-ranking positions as Minister of Foreign Affairs, speaker of the National Assembly and President of the Control Yuan. To Ma’s chagrin, Beijing vetoed the choice of Chien and, according to politicos, had a say in naming its own candidate—Lien Chan. Ma had to swallow the “bitter pill” as it would be politically difficult to oppose Lien, who served as Taiwan’s premier and vice president, and would therefore be the highest ranking official that Taiwan ever sent to the APEC summit. This year, the APEC summit will take place in mid-November in Singapore. It will be interesting to see who President Ma’s Envoy will be.

A Grand Design?

When the news surfaced in May that President Ma wanted to serve concurrently as KMT chairman, Liberty Times and several TV networks polled their audience, and the majority of the respondents expressed their disapproval. The majority also expressed their view that if he takes over the party’s reign, reforming the KMT—notably returning the party’s ill-gotten assets to the public—should take precedence over a meeting with his Chinese counterpart (Taipei Times, June 23).

Ma’s latest renewed promise of party reform is ringing hollow in Taiwanese society, yet the president believes that the voters do not care about nor remember his record of flip-flopping and abandoned pledges (see "Taiwan Presidential Election 2008: Choosing the Path Less Traveled?", March 14, 2008), and that his supporters’ only care for cross-Strait détente and stability. Opposition leaders believe that as party chairman, Ma will try to set the agenda and maneuver to meet with Hu, his disclaimers notwithstanding. Ma will try to persuade China to sign an ECFA by early 2010.

Hu’s term as party general secretary will end with the 18th CCP Congress in October 2012, Hu is therefore considering his legacy, and believes that accomplishing the grand national goal of reunifying Taiwan—a goal that was far from sight for his predecessors PRC leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin—before he steps down will undoubtedly help him leave his mark in history. Hu will need President Ma’s active and close cooperation and Ma’s hat as KMT Chairman will help facilitate their collaboration through the KMT-CCP Forum and other platforms.

Likewise, President Ma will run for re-election in March 2012, and to get re-elected, will need China’s help through the ECFA process to revive Taiwan’s lagging economic growth. Ma’s plan of action appears to take on the clothing of Hu’s earlier proposal and, in collaboration with Hu, work out measures to strengthen peace and security in the Taiwan Strait, the removal of Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan, establish a military confidence-building mechanism, and sign a peace accord. According to KMT insiders who are close to Ma, the president has a plan to also make a bid for the Nobel Peace Prize with Chinese President Hu. If former South Korean President Kim Daejung could get the award through a summit in Pyongyang, the cross-Strait peace and detente would have much greater international impact with candidates on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and would be a more compelling case for the Nobel Peace Review Committee come November 2011.

There will be enormous political opposition from the Democratic Progressive Party; there will be massive street protests and rallies, and a call for a plebiscite on the so-called "peace agreement," because many people in Taiwan now see the plan as a sellout to China. On the other hand, a Nobel Peace Prize for President Ma could disarm and severely weaken the opposition, which may encourage Ma to finally nail the coffin on Taiwanese self-determination for the sake of making history. Yet, Taiwan’s democracy is dynamic, volatile and difficult to predict; and no one can rule out the possibility that Taiwanese voters would vote Ma out of office in the 2012 presidential election. In the meantime, the situation looks grim.


1. Ma exerted considerable political pressure on Lien to step down from the KMT Chairmanship in 2005, then he ran and was elected in July 2005 to succeed Lien. During Ma’s stint as KMT Chairman 2005-2007, he did not visit China nor attend the KMT-CCP Forum, since he was planning to run for President and tried a keep a distance from China. In 2007, Ma resigned from the KMT Chairmanship due to a corruption scandal lawsuit, and was replaced by Wu.