In a democracy, the leader of a political party that loses an election often steps down. However, that is not necessarily the case in Taiwan.
On Tuesday last week, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) said that if the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) fares poorly in the year-end local elections, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who doubles as KMT chairman, should step down. While this is common sense, Hau was criticized and called a defeatist by several members of the party’s Central Standing Committee at a meeting following his statement. If it had not been for his father, former premier and party heavyweight Hau Pei-tsun (郝柏村), coming to his defense in a strong counterattack, the Ma sycophants in the KMT would probably have continued their yapping.
Although the pro-Ma forces within the party are well entrenched, they do not have so much influence over the general public. Ma, the “9 percent president,” is constantly criticized, and has people throwing shoes at him and even driving trucks into his office. Things have become so bad that when he attends meetings, organizers have to set up nets to catch shoes thrown by protesters, and the boulevard leading up to the Presidential Office is being sealed off at night.
Ma has lost all dignity and prestige. Even KMT candidates in the seven-in-one November elections are unwilling to use his image in their election campaign materials because they think he is “box-office poison.”
It is not that Ma does not understand accountability politics. Of course he does: He used former vice presidents Lien Chan (連戰) and Vincent Siew’s (蕭萬長) loss in the 2000 presidential election to former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) as an excuse to lead protesters to the KMT headquarters to demand that then-chairman Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) step down to take responsibility for the loss.
Ma’s prestige is at an unprecedented low. If he steps down as party chairman following a poor election performance, the party will suddenly have two leaders: a bright new star for party chairman and a waning Ma. Ma’s orders will stay in the Presidential Office, while party officials will look to the party headquarters, leaving the president huddled alone in his office. This is why he will fight to the death to retain the party leadership.
Taiwan has a semi-presidential system. Political parties are in charge of nominating election candidates, campaigning and mobilizing voters, while the president is responsible for policy achievements and electoral performance. Ma’s presidency and party chairmanship put him in charge of the KMT, the government and the military. Absolute power requires taking absolute responsibility. If the year-end elections go badly for the KMT, Ma should step down, and if policy performance is below par, Ma, being president, must be held responsible.
Ma’s core advisers understand that the public is dissatisfied with government policy and they are expecting a drubbing in the year-end elections. They are setting up a firewall to protect themselves from any calls to take responsibility. Yet KMT members are not stupid, and candidates have been quick to distance themselves from Ma so as not to lose any votes for being too close to him.
As for accountability, regardless of what anyone thinks now, it will become clear after the elections.