In 2016, then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) had fallen from his pedestal so hard that hardly anyone thought he would be able to climb back up again any time soon — but they were wrong.
Yesterday, a ceremony at the five-star Ambassador Hotel in Taipei to announce the establishment of a foundation named after himself, Ma seemed to have turned the clock back to when he was the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) most-celebrated political star.
The foundation’s establishment was closely watched for many reasons.
First, it reportedly received funding of NT$68 million (US$2.22 million) from Hon Hai Precision Industry Co chairman Terry Gou (郭台銘), the world’s 181st richest man with a net worth of US$7.6 billion, who is rumored to be interested in vying for the presidency.
Second, its founding ceremony brough together all the former premiers who served in the Ma administration, as well as the KMT’s incumbent and former chairpersons. This level of support is unusual, if one considers how many court cases Ma is embroiled in and that he was shunned by most people in the final months of his tenure.
That is why people were eager to find out at yesterday’s ceremony whether the foundation is designed to serve more than its stated purpose of “finding public policy solutions” and whether it is part of Ma’s effort to pave the way for another presidential bid in 2020.
There has been speculation that Ma will make another attempt to become president. Since late last year, the former president’s popularity appeared to be improving, owing to his success in creating a more approachable image after leaving office.
In August 2016, he engaged with Facebook fans by live-streaming the moment he conquered the 3,952m Yushan (Jade Mountain, 玉山). In December last year, photographs of him and his wife eating at a local noodle shop in Kaohsiung also won him praise for possessing the common touch.
Despite identifying Ma as the KMT member most likely to win the 2020 election, National Sun Yat-sen University’s Institute of Political Science professor Liao Da-chi (廖達琪) does not think the foundation’s establishment is directly associated with the presidency.
“Ma could be using the foundation to test the water, but I think his main purpose is to ensure that he receives enough public exposure to keep judicial persecution at bay,” Liao said, referring to prosecutors’ indictment of Ma earlier this month over his alleged role in disposing of KMT assets while serving as party chairman.
“So in a sense, the foundation is there for his own self-preservation,” she said.
Ma might also be trying to counterbalance the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration’s monopoly on the interpretation of current affairs and his legacy, given that most of what he achieved during his eight-year presidency has been shrugged aside by the ruling party, Liao said.
Eric Yu (俞振華), an associate research fellow at National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center, said he believes the idea of running for office again has definitely crossed Ma’s mind, but the new foundation is more likely a tool for him to consolidate influence within the KMT.
“At the moment, Ma does not hold any party position, nor does he have his own people within the party. I believe he is seeking to use the new resources he has received to gather his old team together,” Yu said.
Taiwan Normal University political science professor Fan Shih-ping (范世平) was more skeptical.
“I do not rule out the possibility of Ma running for office again. He would not have needed to establish a third foundation when he already owns two if he was not thinking about running again,” Fan said, referring to the New Taiwanese Cultural Foundation and the Dwen An Social Welfare Foundation Ma founded with a government election subsidy in 1999.
Regardless of what Ma’s real intention is, his newfound popularity seems to have put KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), who served alongside Ma as vice president from 2012 to 2016, in an uncomfortable position.
There has been speculation that Wu also covets the presidency, which was why he ran for KMT chairman last year.
If that is the case, Ma’s rising popularity not only risks undermining Wu’s position in the KMT, it also poses a threat to his presidential dream.
“Wu is stuck in an awkward situation. On the one hand, his fellow party members do not think too highly of his leadership, but on the other, Ma is gaining momentum,” Liao said.
With the nine-in-one local elections on the horizon, Wu cannot afford to let things get ugly between him and Ma, Liao said, adding that was probably why he had to show support to the former president’s new foundation.
Echoing Liao’s views, Yu said Ma’s growing popularity has undoubtedly put Wu under pressure.
“Although Wu has control over his party’s apparatus, the KMT, unlike the DPP, is more decentralized, which means there is more fear and less tolerance of other potential leaders,” Yu said.
If history is any indication, the delicate balance of power within the KMT will not last long, and when it is disrupted, yet another ugly power struggle is likely.
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