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Chairman Ma's Challenge

Authors: Jerome A. Cohen, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies, and Yu-Jie Chen, U.S.-Asia Law Institute, New York University
July 27, 2009
Wall Street Journal Asia


Experience is a great teacher, and the best politicians learn from it. Last year Taiwan's able President Ma Ying-jeou, after only a month in office, said he would not resume chairmanship of his party, the Kuomintang (KMT), while president. Yet Sunday he ran for the post and was elected unopposed. His election makes possible more effective government for the island and further progress in cross-Strait relations, but only if he offers his political opposition a genuine opportunity for participation.

This is a turnaround worth analyzing. Until recently, Mr. Ma's public statements suggested that freedom from KMT burdens would enable him to focus full-time on the enormous challenge of improving the administration of Taiwan's unduly complex governmental system. He also said he wanted to become "president of all the people," not merely KMT supporters. Perhaps years of study in the United States motivated Mr. Ma to emulate the American model where political power stems from government office, not party position, and where presidential power is checked and balanced.

Of course, Taiwan's energetic and partisan political community speculated endlessly about Mr. Ma's "real" motives for rejecting KMT leadership. Did this squeaky-clean leader no longer want to be responsible for a party notoriously addicted to "black gold," politics tainted by corruption allegations and murky business dealings?

Whatever Mr. Ma's reasons, they gradually dissipated in the months following his inauguration, a time of increasing economic gloom. Controlling the Legislative Yuan proved especially difficult and embarrassing, despite the three-fourths majority held by the KMT and its allies. The president's office seemed out of kilter with the legislature, the often independent KMT legislative caucus, and even on occasion with the Executive Yuan, Taiwan's administrative branch.

Without party control, Mr. Ma had a hard time pushing through his agenda. Not long after Mr. Ma's inauguration, the legislature rejected the president's appointments to both the Control Yuan, responsible for investigations of government, and the Examination Yuan, in charge of civil service recruitment. Concern about legislative approval also reportedly discouraged Mr. Ma from appointing certain experts to the Council of Grand Justices, Taiwan's important constitutional court. More recently, the legislature refused to approve nearly half of the 50 "priority" bills proposed by the administration and adopted only four of the nine bills identified by Ma as "must" legislation for the just-concluded legislative session.

Mr. Ma learned from his first year in office that he needed the power to knock heads together or risk a lackluster record. As KMT chairman, Mr. Ma can now do more to impose party discipline. He will exercise greater influence over the selection of legislative leaders and high party officials, and be able to appoint certain legislators and nominate other candidates for election to the legislature and to city and county chief executive posts. He will also find it easier to attract talented people to government and the KMT, coordinate policy making and implementation, and improve administrative efficiency.

Mr. Ma's chairmanship should also make it easier for him to build on the breakthrough in cross-Strait relations of his first year in office. Now that the presidents of both China and Taiwan are also the leaders of their respective political parties, the role of the unofficial forum between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party can be enlarged and eventually facilitate a meeting between the two leaders. Such a meeting should be feasible in this arena--unlike that of government-to-government talks--on a symmetrical, equal footing, without any pre-conditions being imposed. Mr. Ma should also be able to control the pace of the forum talks, which are sometimes criticized for moving too swiftly. It will still be up to each government to decide on and implement any agreements that might emerge from the forum. But Mr. Ma's command of the party should increase the likelihood of legislative approval.

Yet the forum discussions are unlikely to generate substantial achievements unless the KMT expands them to live up to their formal title, the Cross-Strait Economic, Trade and Cultural Forum, by allowing a meaningful role--not a token one--for opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) representatives. This will require statesmanship on the part of both the KMT and the DPP. The latter will have to abandon its rejection of participation in the forum and instead press for a genuine opportunity to take part in planning and decision-making relating to the forum as well as in the forum discussions themselves. If the DPP continues its ostrich-like stance toward these historic talks, it risks losing much of its existing popular support.

The most recent poll of Taiwanese political opinions by Taipei-based Global Views magazine shows some slippage in the standing of the Ma administration, but by far its most impressive finding revealed that 63.8% of those asked said that, if the DPP wanted to uphold Taiwan's interests, it had to engage in direct communication with the Chinese Communist Party. It is time for the DPP's able leader, Tsai Ying-Wen, and her colleagues to abandon their "head in the sand" posture and act as boldly as Mr. Ma did in reversing his position on KMT chairmanship. Taiwan's future is at stake, not merely their own political fortunes. By taking an active part in Taiwan's unofficial discussions with the Mainland, the DPP will do more to protect the island's interests than by carping from the sidelines.


Mr. Cohen is co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Ms. Chen is a research fellow at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute and a Taiwan lawyer.


This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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