It’s official: President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has launched his election campaign for chairmanship of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
A quick glance at the history of KMT chairmanship polls since the first direct election for the position in 2001 shows an increasingly democratic process. In March 2001, Lien Chan (連戰), the sole candidate, won with 97 percent of the vote. Successive elections involved at least two candidates. In 2005, Ma won the race against Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) with 72.4 percent of the vote, while the current chairman, Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄), defeated KMT Legislator Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) in April 2007 with 90 percent of the vote.
Before 2001, only two chairmen — Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and before him Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) — held that position via undemocratic means, that is, by appointment.
On the Democratic Progressive Party side, the list of chairpersons — 17 altogether — tells a similar story, albeit one that was democratic from the very beginning (1986). The only question marks were certain periods of the presidency of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) — from 2002 until 2004, and from 2007 until last year — when the president held the party chairmanship concurrently.
For short periods of time, both parties have had acting chairpersons who were not elected.
It is fair to say, then, that Taiwan’s democratization — from direct presidential elections to those at the county and legislative levels — has been accompanied by similar conduct within political parties.
But this season’s election for KMT chairmanship is odd. It harkens back to a period in the nation’s history when an individual did not become chairperson through a democratic process. The party’s eighth transition in chairmanship is a one-candidate affair, with Ma campaigning for an election that needs no campaign.
Arguably, the precedent of concurrency set by the Chen administration set a bad example. But at least the dual position of chairman-president occurred at a time when the country’s democracy was unquestionably healthier and when the legislature was dominated by the pan-blue camp, serving as a counterbalance to the executive. Not so today, where both are firmly under the control of the same camp.
Ma can say what he wants about wanting to reduce friction between the executive and the legislature, or between government and party, but in the end, his is a power play that runs against more than two decades of democratization. At best, it takes us back eight years to when Lien’s election was a foregone conclusion. At its worst, it takes us back to the appointment system that was in place when the KMT was an authoritarian party.
It is immaterial whether Ma is the single candidate in the “race” as a result of behind-the-scenes pressure or simply because nobody thought they stood a chance against him. What matters is that in a one-man race, time and money are being wasted for nothing more than kabuki theater.
That Ma has the gall to pretend to be in an electoral race when he does not have an opponent is an affront to the public’s intelligence. Worse, it dovetails with the regression in Taiwan’s democracy since he became president.