Political Scandal in Taiwan Good Reason to Focus on Opposition’s Plans

With Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou’s approval ratings at record lows­­ following another scandal—one poll held in late September show that only 9.2% of Taiwanese voters approved of his administration­­—it is more likely than ever that the opposition will win the 2014 “seven in one” elections, taking control of many lower and middle levels of government (Taipei Times, October 30). Policymakers in both Washington and Beijing should be ready to deal with an empowered Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has been in opposition since 2008.

The most recent scandal grew out of an effort to oust an intra-Party rival of President Ma, Speaker Wang Jin-pyng of the Legislative Yuan. Wang appeared in wiretaps as part of a criminal probe of DPP legislator Ker Cheng-Ming by the Special Investigations Division (SID), a police body charged with investigating corruption among high officials. While the investigation was still active, Ma announced the evidence in a press conference, using his role as head of the ruling Nationalist Party (Kuomingtang, or KMT) to have Wang thrown out of the party—which, in Taiwan’s electoral system, would deprive him of his seat in the legislature. However, Wang filed suit and successfully regained his membership by court order. The scandal has led to widespread accusations from both the DPP and Wang’s KMT allies that Ma is abusing his power over both the party and the police, and revived suspicions of politically motivated investigations by the SID, which conducted the corruption investigation that led to the imprisonment of former DPP President Chen Shui-bian and many of his allies (Taipei Times, October 6).

The Ma-Wang rivalry is driven by differences on both legislative tactics and cross-straits relations, with the evident breaking point being a vote on the Cross-Strait Agreement on Trade in Services. Following DPP criticism of the agreement, Wang agreed to allow the agreement to be broken up into votes on several sections, over the objections of the President. The scandal may further delay ratification of the agreement, as the DPP has canceled a televised debate, citing the “constitutional crisis” (DPP web site, September 13).

A DPP victory would not necessarily mean a return to the series of crises that marked the term in office of Chen Shui-bian. First of all, Ma and his party will remain in control of the presidency and national legislature through 2016, barring Ma’s impeachment or a vote of no confidence in Premier Jiang Yi-huah, which could lead to new legislative elections. Although DPP Chairman Su Tseng-Cheng has called for both impeachment proceedings, Wang, the chief of the legislature, has shown no signs of agreeing, and with a majority in the legislature the KMT is unlikely to accept new elections at a strategic moment for its rivals (DPP web site, September 15; DPP statement at press conference, October 10).

Secondly, the DPP has committed itself to avoiding provocative gestures in an effort to deal with an issue it views as its Achilles’ Heel­. Chairman Su has orchestrated a campaign over the last year to develop new polices on mainland relations and national defense in an effort to reassure both the Taiwan public and Washington that it can serve as a governing party without further cross-straits crises. In a June “Blue paper on national defense,” the party promised to raise defense spending to 3% of GDP and make arms purchases from the United States a priority, both policies that U.S. representatives have encouraged (for more this, see “The Democratic Progressive Party’s Defense Policy Blue Papers and the Opposition’s Vision for Taiwan’s National Defense,” in China Brief, Vol. 13, Issue 17). However, the blue paper did not  specify how the additional money would be spent, nor offer a solution to the recruiting crisis associated with Taiwan’s transition to an all-volunteer military (See “The Democratic Progressive Party’s Defense Policy Blue Papers and the Opposition’s Vision for Taiwan’s National Defense,” and “A Tale of Two Volunteer Programs,” in China Brief, Volume 13, Issue 17). Su has also convened a series of meetings to establish a new China policy for the party (See “Charting Course for 2014 Elections, Taiwanese Opposition Debates China Policy,” China Brief, Volume 13, Issue 18).

As of the most recent meeting of the DPP China Affairs Committee, on September 26, the discussion appears to be going in circles, with advocates of Frank Hsieh’s “Two sides, two constitutions” formulation arguing that it can be the basis for talks, while other wings of the party argued that talks can begin from the idea of Taiwanese independence as long as the party promises not to rename the island from Republic of China to Republic of Taiwan (Taipei Times, September 27). The various sides, however, seem to agree that cultivating a relationship with Beijing is desirable.

If Ma emerges from the scandal as a crippled leader, it will pose a considerable challenge to Beijing: On the one hand, Beijing has made limited efforts to engage DPP leaders informally in recent years, evidently hoping to maintain the trend toward cross-strait economic integration in the case of a DPP president. On the other hand, Beijing strongly prefers having a KMT counterpart in Taipei, with Ma their strongest hope in decades for “politics talks” on reunification—which Chinese President Xi Jinping argued were long overdue during a meeting . Beijing has good reason to prepare for a DPP presidency, but if it allows the DPP to demonstrate that it can deal with the mainland, it risks depriving Ma of his strongest remaining political advantage.

Speaking on Taiwan’s National Day on October 10, Ma played up this advantage, describing good relations with the mainland as the foundation of economic growth, and as a prerequisite for the free-trade agreements his government has recently negotiated with several third-party states. However, he also sought to defray suspicions that he plans to discuss unification with the mainland, saying that he had persuaded Beijing to delay talks about sovereignty in favor of cooperation on trade (Taipei Times, October 11).

A weakened Ma is unlikely to be able to deliver political talks—and may yet be unable to win approval for the services trade agreement. If so, Beijing may have reason to reconsider its options.