Ma’s struggle for leadership
Critics of president-elect Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) have long derided (if not vilified) him for his alleged "spinelessness" and inability to create a distinct path for himself within the party. While it is true that Ma does not have the authority of, say, Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) or Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) — which will undoubtedly create problems for him — we can nevertheless see him, in the weeks following his election in March, striving for a modicum of autonomy. As I have argued before, this effort has expressed itself in Ma’s move to the center of the political spectrum, a slide that already is beginning to alienate more hardcore members of the KMT.
The most salient example of Ma’s shift may be his surprise appointment of former Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) legislator Lai Shin-yuan (賴幸媛) as Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) chairwoman. The decision came as a surprise — and shocked KMT purists — because Lai has long been known for her critical stance on China and pro-independence views on Taiwan, which seems a bit of a contradiction given the KMT’s “pro-China” position and the role of the MAC in fostering rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing. Nevertheless, the appointment appears to reflect Ma’s promise to assemble a Cabinet that includes people from both the pan-green and pan-blue parties, and for this, Ma should be given credit.
No sooner had the announcement of Lai’s appointment been made, however, than KMT members were decrying the decision and calling on Ma to instead tap into the pool of dedicated, hard-working KMT candidates as he puts together his Cabinet. In other words, Ma appeared to be breaking a party rule that would limit the candidates to blue-card-carrying candidates. Put differently, under that unwritten rule, rather than seek to appoint the best candidates from across the political spectrum, Ma should be limiting himself to picking individuals from within the KMT and thereby engineer a true one-party state, or a state for the party.
If, as I read it, Ma’s intentions are (at least partly) to create a Cabinet that would indeed be representative of Taiwan (as opposed to being representative of the KMT or, more cynically, Beijing), the future president may be in for the fight of his life, and his opponents will be party members themselves rather than the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) opposition.
The real danger lies in Ma losing that battle — which is a very real possibility, given, as we have seen, his lack of authority and non-old-KMT-guard allies. Should this come about, Ma would become but a figurehead president, while the real political decision-making would rest with behind-the-scene figures such as former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰) and the ever-conspicuous (and likely National Security Council chairman) Su Chi (蘇起), whose allegiance seems to rest with Beijing rather than Taipei. Furthermore, a sidelined Ma would mean that his Cabinet appointments that do not meet prevailing party standards would also be cast aside, meaning that Lai, for example, would be incapacitated as MAC chairwoman and the real negotiations with Beijing would happen at the non-official level — which may already be the case, what with (as Michael Turton rightly points out today on his blog The View from Taiwan) Lien’s meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) this week.
There is no doubt that Ma has been changed by the presidential election; the transforming power of carrying the weight of a people on one’s shoulders should not be underestimated. Ma may not go as far as his predecessor Lee did in becoming an advocate of Taiwanese independence, but there are undeniable signs that a shift in his perspective has occurred. And it is more than political smokescreen to appease the DPP. What remains to be seen, however, is whether he is capable of retaining his independence and fight the battle that is brewing within the KMT.