The role of local factions in Taiwan’s democratic evolution has become a focus for discussion in the wake of three recent events — the defeat of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in last month’s Yunlin County legislative by-election, the failure to pass a referendum proposal to allow casinos in Penghu County and the withdrawal of KMT candidate Chang Li-shan (張麗善) from the contest for Yunlin County commissioner in December’s local elections.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) reacted with his famous phrase: “We would rather be defeated than tolerate abuse.”
On the surface, Ma seems to be saying that he would rather gloriously sacrifice himself than compromise with local factions, but he is actually evading responsibility for the KMT’s recent defeats. It reminds one of the words of Tu Yueh-sheng (杜月笙), the boss of Shanghai’s Green Gang (青幫) who said: “Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) treats me like a chamber pot. When he’s done with me, he sticks me back under the bed.”
Tu’s words shed an interesting light on the present situation. The circumstances may differ, but the essence of the problem is the same.
Tu’s “chamber pot” is an apt simile for the sinister way local factions have traditionally divided the spoils with KMT officials. The story goes that when Tu, whose name struck fear into the hearts of people in Shanghai, witnessed how Chiang turned on his allies and ordered the massacre of labor union leaders, he said to his underlings with a sigh: “People call me ruthless, but compared to this lot I’m a pious Buddhist vegetarian.”
Of course Tu was no vegetarian monk, but his description of Chiang was spot on. When the KMT was defeated by the communists in the Civil War and retreated to Taiwan, it transplanted its policy of playing one faction against another. Much research has been conducted on the origin of Taiwan’s factional politics since Hu Fu (胡佛) published Political Change and Democratization (政治變遷與民主化) in 1988.
Ma may talk of abuse by local factions, but history shows that it was the KMT, that epitome of corruption, that nurtured those factions with the enormous resources it got by siphoning money from the national treasury into its own coffers. The factions are regularly rewarded with a slice of the action of local construction projects. Come election time, they are responsible for going door to door to buy votes.
Factions have been the very basis of the KMT’s political survival. The fact is, for the past 60 years, the KMT has used local factions to implement its divide-and-rule policy to control the Taiwanese.
The party has maintained overwhelming power in local government and the legislature and only lost control of the presidency and central government for eight years. This shows that the mutual reliance of the KMT and local factions remains unchanged.
Ma would rather not talk about how his own poor performance has wrecked the KMT’s chances in recent by-elections. Instead, he puts the failures down to local factions and their “abuses.” Is this not a modern-day version of Chiang and his chamber pot?
We see many KMT branches splitting over nominations for December’s elections for mayors, county commissioners and councilors. Ma would have us believe that it is because he is saying goodbye to the factions, but the real reason is that the factions are no longer playing by Ma’s rules.
Local factions, a product of the KMT, have become an impediment to the progress of democracy in Taiwan and a focus of public resentment. If Ma were really willing to break with his party’s murky past, say goodbye to the factions and improve the quality of Taiwan’s democracy, he would have our full support and win applause from the public.
The reality, however, is quite different. On one hand, Ma says he will never compromise with the factions. On the other, his party’s candidate lists for the year-end elections are full of known faction members. For example, a Chiayi County legislator has unexpectedly been transferred into the National Security Council, despite his lack of expertise, allowing one of the potential candidates for Yunlin County commissioner to take over his legislative seat and thus avoid a potentially divisive primary election and appease local factions with a share of political power.
Again, Ma sent one of his trusted lieutenants off to Hualien County ostensibly to eliminate local factions, but with the real purpose of setting up an alternative “presidential guard” faction to pave the way for the 2012 presidential election. Luckily the public are clever enough to see through these schemes.
If the task of dealing with local factions is in the hands of others, then it may not all go according to Ma’s plan. However, Ma also promised during his election campaign to deal with the KMT’s assets, a matter that has damaged Taiwan’s democracy.
However, what has he done about fulfilling his campaign pledge? Ma will soon take over as KMT chairman. Will he hold on to these resources that defy principles of social justice, or will he make a clean break with his party’s past by responding to the public’s calls for reform? He has little time left to decide which path to choose.
As to the local factions that gain strength by relying on the KMT, they too face an important choice. The emergence of factions was no accident. In the past, the US had its southern factions and the notorious Chicago families. However, as democracy evolved, these factions were all absorbed into political parties or replaced by them.
At most, they live on as factions within parties, not locally dominant entities. This experience is noteworthy, especially now, after Ma said: “We would rather be defeated than tolerate abuse.” This is an expression of his deep disdain for local factions.
They should clearly understand that relying on water from the KMT’s tap is a bad idea, because then the KMT has you by the throat and can turn off the water whenever it wants. In the end, the KMT will still say “you stink.”
Who wants to go on being a “chamber pot?” It would be better for the factions to wean themselves off the KMT and take a fresh road toward cleaner, healthier politics.
With the year-end elections in 17 cities and counties approaching, let us hope Ma will live up to his word and end his party’s unscrupulous manipulation of local factions. Let us hope also that local factions will see the trend of the times and no longer be lured for the sake of material gain into being manipulated by political parties.
Finally, let us hope that vote captains and voters will no longer let their votes be bought. If these hopes come true, democracy, the nation, political parties, factions and the public all stand to win.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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