President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) decision to register as the sole candidate for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairmanship late last month has raised concern among some political observers over the expansion of his power.
The melodrama began last year when speculation surfaced that Ma intended to take over the party leadership to tighten his control over KMT legislators and party affairs.
Although he and KMT Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) were equally tight-lipped about his intention, Ma said during a TV interview earlier last month that it would be easier for him to push policies through if he were the party chairman. After speculation mounted over a power struggle between the two, Ma and Wu decided to hold a joint press conference to explain the issue days earlier than they had planned.
George Liu (劉志聰), a researcher at the Center for Peace and Strategic Studies, expressed concern over the possible conflict between Ma’s two roles, saying the president’s job was to serve public interest, while the party chairman’s job was to promote party interests.
Liu said Ma’s motive was clear: to expand his power. When Ma becomes a “super strongman” who has the final say on the affairs of the party, government, military and intelligence, the legislature will find it hard to keep him in check, he said.
The role of the legislature is bound to weaken and become no more than a rubber stamp for the administration, Liu said, adding that although former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) at one time also doubled as Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman, the DPP was never a majority in the legislature.
As the KMT chairman, Ma could use the communication channel between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to compel the party and the legislature to toe the line, especially in cross-strait policies, Liu said.
Some have speculated that Ma might attend the KMT-CCP forum and meet his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), in his capacity as KMT chairman. Liu, however, said the meeting would not happen any time soon.
It was more likely to happen in 2012 if Ma wins the presidential reelection and before Hu steps down, Liu said, because Beijing is watching whether Ma would continue “to behave.”
Ma must also make sure that his China-friendly policies do not drive away any potential voters in the next election, Liu observed.
Ma’s decision to double as party chairman, however, was not surprising, Liu added, because it was an overt attempt to remove the roadblocks on his way to a second term as he realized party infighting would only undermine his leadership.
Nanhua University professor Wang Szu-wei (王思為) said Ma’s taking over the helm of the KMT poses risks for the country.
First, Ma would seize control of the legislature and further undermine the power of Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平). Even People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) has sensed this threat, Wang Szu-wei said, noting Soong’s recent visit to former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), possibly to seek an alliance.
Second, Ma would reclaim control over cross-strait policies, especially from the hands of party heavyweights such as former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰), outgoing KMT Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung and Straits Exchange Foundation Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤), Wang Szu-wei said.
As party chairman, Wang Szu-wei said Ma would hold the right to nominate candidates for elections at all levels, especially after the redrawing of administrative zones following the mergers or upgrade of counties and cities.
With this power in hand, Ma could do a house cleaning to silence his opponents within the party, Wang Szu-wei said.
Ma is also likely to use the KMT’s legislative majority to amend the Constitution, which could take the country down an irreversible path, he said. If this becomes a reality, other things such as whether the KMT-CCP forum would continue or whether Ma would meet Hu would become secondary, he said.
Wang Szu-wei said Ma’s pledges should be taken with a grain of salt because most of them had not stood the test of time.
While registering as the candidate for party chairman, Ma promised to dispose of dubious party assets and rely on fund-raising to finance future campaigns. He also promised to nominate honest and clean party members for public offices.
However, Ma has broken his promise that he would not double as party chairman. He now insists that he would be taking on the party chairmanship not to expand his power but because he has to shoulder “a new historic responsibility.”
Ma has also defined the party’s decision-making body, the Central Standing Committee, as a communication platform, saying he would continue the KMT-CCP forum.
Antonio Chiang (江春男), former deputy secretary-general of the National Security Council and former editor-in-chief of the Taipei Times, said he welcomed Ma’s decision to take over the KMT chairmanship, as Ma would no longer have anyone to blame for his failures.
Chiang said he was not worried that Ma would become a political “strongman” because to be one, that person must possess great abilities and the courage to shoulder all responsibilities.
He said he doubted Ma had such abilities and backbone.
“He might have some potential, but before he does anything, we don’t know for sure,” he said.
Even if Ma were to become a “strongman,” Chiang said he would be held in check as long as there is a system of checks and balances in place.
Chiang said he did not think it was a big deal that Ma had broken his promise of not doubling as party chairman, because most politicians lie. Ma had said on numerous occasions that he would not stand in the Taipei mayoral election, but he eventually did, Chiang said.
Chen also doubled as DPP chairman, Chiang said, but he later found out that it was not what he had expected.
Ma might end up in the same situation, Chiang said.
“I don’t have any problem seeing him have more power,” Chiang said.
“Let him have it. He will discover that he cannot do more things simply because he has more power. Instead he will invite more trouble. It’s a great opportunity to test his ability,” he said.
The legislature would not be as easy to manage as Ma might think, Chiang added, because legislators have their own interests in mind.
Chiang said he would like to think that Ma’s goal was to reform the century-old party, an ambitious task not even former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) and Lee dared to take on.
Ma’s biggest problem is that he was never closely connected with the party and his election victories were secured by distancing himself from the KMT, Chiang said.
The party might benefit more from Ma than the other way around, he said, but Ma seemed determined to undertake this challenge, so he must hand it to him.
Chiang, however, said that Ma would become an easier target for criticism because he is wading into water over his head.
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