Published: September 13, 2013.
Political life in the island nation of Taiwan is facing uncertainty and looming chaos as President Ma Ying-jeou attempts to counter plummeting popularity and threats to his leadership of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party.
There are persistent reports in Taiwan that KMT factions are preparing to remove Ma from the party leadership if his shrivelled popularity, now only 11 per cent, affects the showing of the party’s candidates in mayoral elections in the country’s leading cities next year.
While Ma might retain the presidency, his removal from the chairmanship of the KMT would leave him the lamest of lame ducks in his final months at the helm.
Ma set the highly unpredictable chain of events in motion earlier this week when he demanded expulsion from the party of one of his main political rivals within the KMT, the popular Speaker of Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, Wang Jin-pyng.
Ma accused Wang of influence peddling on the basis of a wire tap by the Special Investigation Division (SID) of the Supreme Prosecutor’s office.
Earlier this year the Supreme Court recommended that charges of breach of trust against a leading opposition politician, Ker Chien-ming, be dropped. But Ker is alleged to have feared the SID would pursue the case despite the court’s recommendation.
It is claimed Ker called Wang and asked him to intercede with Justice Minister Tseng Yung-fu to lean on the SID not to pursue the case further.
Tseng resigned from the Justice Ministry last Sunday as the story broke, while protesting his innocence. Wang has said his conversation with Ker was a general one about the abuse of power by the SID, and not specifically about Ker’s case.
In a piece of gross exaggeration, which suggests Ma is under extreme pressure, he described the allegation against Wang as “the most shameful day in Taiwan’s democratic history.”
On Wednesday a KMT disciplinary committee bowed to Ma’s demands and suspended Wang’s party membership, which would likely have meant he would also lose the job of Speaker, which he has held since 1999.
But on Friday Wang and his supporters fought back. He won a reprieve when a Taipei court granted him an injunction, allowing him to keep his KMT membership rights while he brings a civil suit against the party leaders for unfair treatment. It could take months for this case to run its course, and while that happens the rifts within the KMT are likely to widen and deepen.
China’s government in Beijing will be watching developments intently. Since he was first elected President, in 2008, Ma has pursued policies aimed at improving relations with China by boosting economic and trade relations. China claims to own the island nation of 23-million people, and maintains a permanent threat to invade.
Ma’s policies have won him some international approval, especially in the United States, for lowering tensions in the region.
But in Taiwan, Ma’s popularity has been in free-fall since his re-election in 2012, and stands now at only 11 per cent. A prime reason for voter disenchantment is that economic benefits from increased commerce with China have benefited a slim number of already-wealthy Taiwanese. Trade with China, as in several other countries, has promoted economic disparity between rich, the middle class and the poor in what was one of the world’s most equitable societies.
And despite Ma’s denials, there is growing apprehension that he intends in the final two years of his second four-year term to prepare for some kind of political union with China.
Over the last 400 years and more, Taiwan has been a refuge for people escaping chaos and government abuse in China. Polls over the last 20 years consistently show that well over 80 per cent of Taiwanese want to maintain their independence.
But many of the godfathers of the KMT were born in China, and fled to Taiwan with the former Chinese and KMT leader, Chiang Kai-shek, after his defeat by Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949. This division in Taiwanese society between native-born Taiwanese for whom the island is home, and the Chinese-born elite of the KMT, many of whom retain yearnings for their motherland, is vividly displayed in the rivalry between Ma and Wang.
Ma comes from a leading KMT family and claims to have been born in Hong Kong, then a British colony, although there is documentary evidence he was born in Shenzhen, across the border in China.
Ma grew up among KMT aristocracy and one of his first jobs before getting into politics himself was as a senior official in the office of President Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, who began dismantling the system of one-party rule under martial law established by his father.
Wang, on the other hand, is a Taiwanese from the island’s second largest city, Kaohsiung, in the country’s south where his family were farmers.
The south is the heartland of Taiwanese nationalism and support for the pro-independence main opposition party the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Wang’s membership of the KMT has therefore been an important asset for the party in a region that naturally leans toward the opposition.
Wang was first elected to the Legislative Yuan in the early stages of the transition to democracy in the 1970s. He has been re-elected eight times, and his unassuming manner and consensual approach to politics has won him fans among the opposition DPP.
This ability to operate across the political divide led to his election as Speaker in 1999 and his maintenance of that position during the presidency of then DPP leader Chen Shui-bian from 2000 to 2008.
Wang and Ma have been intense political rivals within the KMT since at least 2005, although until now they have managed to remain civil in public.
In 2005 Wang challenged Ma for the leadership of the KMT, then in opposition. Had he won, Wang would have been in a good position to be the party’s candidate in the 2008 presidential election.
But Ma won both the party leadership and the presidency, and although Wang toyed with challenging Ma for the KMT candidacy in 2008, he decided not to in the interests of party unity.
Unity is something many KMT members are calling for now, but for the foreseeable future it will be a commodity in short supply.
Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, published in 2005 by Palgrave-Macmillan of New York.
Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe