A power struggle over the top position in the post-President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) era may soon surface in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), particularly after Premier Jiang Yi-huah’s (江宜樺) meteoric rise to power from political science professor to the head of the Cabinet on Monday.
While Jiang’s unexpected appointment as premier is seen by some political analysts as a desperate bid by Ma to buy more time for his fast-sinking administration, the professor-turned-politician could become a dark horse in an already fierce battle for power in the KMT that has seen four strong contenders — Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), New Taipei City (新北市) Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫), Greater Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) and Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) — political observers said.
Jiang only entered politics in 2008, when Ma was first elected as president and appointed him as minister of the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission.
Over the course of five years, the 52-year-old climbed the political ladder so fast that he is now the nation’s youngest premier in about 50 years, sparking wild speculation, including that he may be Ma’s favored candidate to represent the party in next year’s Taipei City mayoral election.
However, Ma, who doubles as KMT chairman, has remained tight-lipped on who would be his “favored successor,” saying that such a person should be chosen via the party’s pre-election mechanism, rather than being designated.
Ma is perceived to be very concerned about his power, to the extent that he gravely dreads being surpassed or replaced by up-and-coming talent in his party, as evidenced by his insistence on seeking a second re-election as KMT chairman, despite the two-term limit imposed on leaders of civil organizations and according to the party’s regulations.
Although Ma’s re-election bid has given rise to some voices of dissent within the KMT, these “non-mainstream” party members would not dare go too far in their opposition or openly turn against Ma, because they know only too well that Ma is bound to be re-elected as chairman in July this year and will continue to reign over the party, political watchers said.
At present, none of the likely successor candidates in the KMT with both the competence and potential to replace Ma suit the president’s tastes, analysts said, particularly on the heels of a closely watched graft case involving former Executive Yuan secretary-general Lin Yi-shih (林益世), one of Ma’s trusted aides.
Lin, who had served as the KMT’s youngest deputy caucus whip, was indicted on charges of corruption for allegedly receiving a bribe of NT$63 million (US$2.1 million) from a businessman in return for extending a contract with the state-controlled China Steel Corp in 2010, and for allegedly asking for a further NT$83 million last year.
Lin’s graft scandal was a slap in the face for Ma, who likes to boast about his integrity, and came close to crippling the Ma administration, which has long suffered dismal approval ratings.
Most political figures found the results of the investigation — that Lin was the only government official implicated in the case — far from convincing, speculating that the top management of the nation’s investigating agencies may have kept the “real truth” about the corruption allegations to themselves.
Lin’s case was a wake-up call to Ma that he should put less trust in politicians from grassroots levels, as well as those who have a history of disputes over money, political observers said.
For this reason, Wu, who was rumored to have also been involved in Lin’s bribery case — an allegation which Wu denied — and whose approval ratings have never been stellar, is believed to be less likely to win Ma’s favor.
As for Chu, analysts said that his perceived attempt to blaze his own path in the political arena appeared to have alienated him from the KMT’s power center, despite having kept a relatively low profile.
“As far as Ma is concerned, Chu is a capable competitor who not only has the people’s support, but also has the ability to ‘cripple’ him before he completes his second presidential term,” the analysts said.
In November last year, Chu delivered a speech at a symposium of a pan-green think tank, a move that won him positive appraisals from several pan-green heavyweights, some of who even urged him to run in the 2016 presidential election.
However, Chu’s rapprochement effort with the pan-green camp was frowned upon by some of Ma’s close aides, who were said to have quickly jumped to Ma’s defense.
Sources said that Chu further provoked the ire of Ma’s aides when he was interviewed by a pan-green media outlet in December last year, with some being eager to ascertain whether Chu initiated the interview.
Having served as Greater Taichung mayor for more than a decade, Hu has yet to be allowed entry into the government’s power center, despite Ma taking office in 2008.
According to sources from the pan-blue camp, Hu has been regarded as a threat to Ma because of his strong public relations skills and popularity, ans because he was chosen in an opinion poll as the “most suitable KMT member to take the party’s helm.”
Ma’s move to appoint Greater Taichung Deputy Mayor Hsiao Chia-chi (蕭家淇) as deputy minister of the interior in the latest Cabinet reshuffle also indicates that he does not want Hu to seek another term as Taichung mayor, the sources said, which also obliquely denies Hu the opportunity of taking up other higher government positions.
The sources said that while Ma has long displayed cronyism, he would still seek to edge out aides who are more competent than him and share too many similarities with him, a category to which Hu belongs.
Following Hu’s narrow victory in the 2010 Taichung mayoral election over Democratic Progressive Party candidate Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全), speculation has emerged that the KMT headquarters is mulling putting up other party members — such as Changhua County Commissioner Cho Po-yuan (卓伯源) — as candidates in the constituency.
However, Cho might have to take a back seat to other KMT candidate hopefuls in next year’s mayoral election, after his reputation was tarnished by a recent corruption scandal involving his brother, Cho Po-chung (卓伯仲).
Meanwhile, political watchers said that Hau serving as the mayor of the nation’s capital might not necessarily earn him a competitive edge in the KMT’s ongoing power struggle, because his lack of interaction with party comrades has weakened his political momentum in the party.
According to a KMT Taipei City councilor, who is deemed one of Ma’s aides and who requested anonymity, Hau knows that for him to become a national political figure, he has to expand his political influence in southern Taiwan — a traditional stronghold of the pan-green camp.
“I think the ulterior motive behind Hau calling for medical parole for imprisoned former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) is fairly self-evident,” the city councilor said.
A KMT member, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that since Hau was not at the top of Ma’s shortlist to be cultivated as the next party leader, he might be at a disadvantage in the power struggle unless he took the initiative to show his strength.
With only three years left of Ma’s second four-year tenure as president, it has become inevitable for a new generation of leaders to rise from within the KMT.
Although Jiang now appears to be the weakest competitor among the five leadership hopefuls, he could be the ultimate winner should the tussle between Wu and Chu backfire on both of them, consolidating Ma’s authority to designate his own successor in the post-Ma era, political observers said.