The storm hasn’t even started yet

By Chen Chao-chien 陳朝建  / 

Fri, Jan 15, 2010 - Page 8

Last weekend’s Taoyuan, Taichung and Taitung legislative by-election results have put the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in a funk, and President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) halo is losing its luster.

Ma needed to pass his test last Saturday with flying colors. He didn’t. And there are other tests to come: four more legislative by-elections at the end of next month and then the mayoral elections for the five special municipalities before the year is out. Tough times are ahead for Ma and the KMT.

I want to look at several implications of the election results, but let’s look first at how Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Lai Kun-cheng (賴坤成) was able to win in a KMT stronghold like Taitung. KMT party morale was already at a low because of the various shenanigans perpetrated by its candidate, incumbent county commissioner Kuang Li-chen (鄺麗貞), and voter dissatisfaction at the controversy surrounding Kuang allowed Lai to win by a thin margin. This dissatisfaction was also the reason for the KMT losing Taichung County to the DPP’s Chien Chao-tung (簡肇棟) and Taoyuan County to Kuo Jung-chung (郭榮宗). The previous incumbents, Chiang Lien-fu (江連福) and Liao Cheng-ching (廖正井), both KMT, had been removed from their positions under ignominious circumstances after convictions for vote-buying, against which they had appealed for “justice,” that were both eventually upheld. These controversies contributed to the collapse of the KMT vote despite the aggressive canvassing that the party is so good at.

The next point is the significance of last weekend’s by-­election results to the shift in the balance of political power. The DPP can now raise a motion for the recall of the president, as well as call for constitutional amendments and changes pertaining to territorial matters. They can also require the president to address the legislature with a country report and ask to convene an interim session of the legislature.

Such powers are regulated by the Constitution and amendments thereof and also by the Act Governing Legislators’ Exercise of Power (立法院職權行使法). These stipulate a threshold of signatures from at least a quarter of legislators before any such motion can be called.

The KMT can no longer rely on its majority in the legislature for an iron grip on power: The DPP are becoming stronger and will now be able to boycott legislation. Caution should be exercised here, however. If the DPP proposes a motion to recall the president, the party would be condemning itself to a political deadlock along partisan lines and a stalemate in cross-strait matters.

There are another four legislative by-elections due at the end of next month and the DPP has a chance of repeating last weekend’s victory, building on its honeymoon with the electorate. With that hurdle out of the way, it will have a clear sprint to the special municipality elections at the end of the year. The KMT was unable to avoid splitting the vote in the Taoyuan and Hualien by-elections, while in Hsinchu, pan-blue unity is being compromised by conflicts of interest and the DPP’s Chen Ming-wen (陳明文) looks favored to win Chiayi. As far as they KMT is concerned, all of these areas are “problem constituencies.”

It’s important to note that during their rule, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) and Taipei County Commissioner Chou Hsi-wei (周錫瑋) have both suffered a slide in support and a swing of the median vote away from them. The KMT might actually take some comfort from this. If the DPP do manage to win big in the special municipality elections, it is possible that a kind of pendulum effect would set in motion, benefiting Ma in his presidential re-election bid come 2012.

The fourth implication is the impact on the standing of party leaders. DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has further consolidated her authority within the party, and her political relationship with another DPP heavyweight, former premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), is clearly improving. By contrast, rumblings over Ma’s performance are becoming audible within his party, and he may well be obliged to make further changes to the party and his Cabinet.

Particularly prickly issues for him are the US beef saga, A(H1N1) vaccinations and the signing of an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with Beijing.

We might also look at the respective party secretaries-­generals, both of whom are quite new to the position. The recent events cannot but put DPP Secretary-General Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) in a favorable light, while KMT counterpart King Pu-tsung’s (金溥聰) press relations skills are going to be severely tested if he is going to staunch the bleeding from Ma’s battered reputation. King’s personal standing within the KMT is also at risk of going down with the sinking ship if he continues in his position as secretary-general.

Finally, we turn to the five special municipality elections. The DPP is on a roll at the moment and seems to have already left behind the corruption scandal surrounding former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). If the party can come up with a “dream team” of candidates for those elections — and there is speculation that Su and Tsai have been chalked in for Taipei City and Sinbei City — then the party is going to enter the fray well prepared. If a US beef import referendum is held at the same time as the special municipality elections, the KMT is going to have even more of an uphill battle. That is, of course, unless it has a dream team of its own. I would even say that this particular storm is going to hit way before the end of the year if the KMT receives another battering in the four legislative by-elections late next month.

Chen Chao-chien is an assistant professor of public affairs at Ming Chuan University.