Recent debate over whether President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) should serve as Chinese Nationality Party (KMT) chairman was quickly muted when, to avoid embarrassing KMT Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄), the two decided not to discuss the matter until the chairmanship election in the middle of June.
The media and public opinion have accommodated that decision by switching their focus to the controversial promotion of high-ranking military personnel and ignoring the political predicament that would result if Ma were to serve concurrently as chairman as well as the problematic constitutional system that is highlighted by the matter.
History shows us that if Ma became party chairman, every president of the Republic of China (ROC) — with the exception of Yen Chia-kan (嚴家淦), a transitional figure who succeeded dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) as president when Chiang died in 1975 — would have served concurrently as chairman.
There is, therefore, an unwritten rule that a president shall chair a party’s central standing committee. This is also why former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) doubled as chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) during his presidency. It is also why Ma, whose party holds a large majority in the legislature and controls most government posts, wants to take over as chairman of the KMT.
Many people suspect this is the result of the centralization of power, insecurity, or even an attempt to directly control the legislature. However, since past presidents have followed the same pattern despite the different size of their power bases, a look into the dual leadership system of the ROC Constitution provides clues as to why Ma is considering doubling as party chairman: The ability to control the premiership and the Cabinet if the KMT were to lose at the polls, or if Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) were forced to step down.
In other words, Ma’s motivation for serving as party chairman is a result of the problems created by the system of dual leadership. The reason Liu has been able to remain in power despite his poor performance and low approval rating is that under the system of dual leadership, the president has a weak hold on the Cabinet. If Liu were forced to resign after the year-end mayoral and county commissioner elections or after the special municipal mayoral elections next year, this would be a terrible blow to Ma.
Regardless of whether Liu is replaced by Wu, Straits Exchange Foundation Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤), Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) or Taoyuan County Commissioner Eric Chu (朱立倫), Ma would be hard put to exert direct control over them. At the very least, he would have to share his power with whoever filled Liu’s shoes. As such a power-sharing mechanism has never been put in place, this could be enough to scare a president who still has to run for re-election.
Perhaps this fear and the fear of the party’s presidential nomination for the 2012 election are the reasons why Ma wants to double as party chairman. But for the president to use external controls by pressuring the Cabinet through the party’s Central Standing Committee would denigrate the legislature and turn it into a rubber stamp, which would severely damage Taiwan’s democracy.
Also, if the president were able to make decisions as chairman of the party’s Central Standing Committee, he would not have to take political responsibility if the outcome were not favorable — this is the old path that Chen and the DPP once followed.