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The New, Ruling KMT

The Honeymoon... and the Morning After


With controversies brewing over party assets, corruption and the relationship between the Legislature and Cabinet, the freshly victorious KMT still has a way to go to get its house in order.



The Honeymoon... and the Morning After

By Alice Yang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 397 )

Following the resounding victory of the Kuomintang (KMT) in the March presidential election, a brand new chapter in Taiwanese party politics opens on May 20 as political power again changes hands with the formal inauguration of President-elect Ma Ying-jeou.

But the honeymoon with voters has ended early for Ma and the KMT, also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party, which previously regained control of the legislature in January elections. Henceforth, voters will harshly scrutinize Mr. Ma in judging whether he has redeemed his political promises.

After eight years out of power, the KMT comes in facing an entirely new situation, and everything seems in critical condition. Each evening, Premier-designate Liu Chao-shiuan meets on a rotating basis with each of his ministers to discuss new personnel and policies post-May 20. The first political check to be drawn will be for the Ministry of Transportation and Communications to open active negotiations on direct air links with China. Transport Minister-designate Mao Chi-kuo has already announced that Taipei Songshan Airport, Taoyuan International Airport, Taichung Airport and Kaohsiung International Airport would be opened to weekend flights to and from China.

Prior to May 16, KMT lawmaker Lee Chia-chin, who is chairman of the Legislature 

's Internal Affairs Committee, held policy coordination meetings with Mainland Affairs Council chairwoman-designate Lai Shin-yuan to advise her on matters including how to authorize currency exchanges between the NT dollar and China's renminbi, by quickly amending the "Statute Governing Relations between People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area" through executive order.

"We're like a tiger pulling out its own teeth," said Lee Chia-chin – as it is actually the Legislature's role to check and balance executive branch agencies. "We're really bending over backwards to help them out."

But the trials facing Mr. Ma have only just begun: a national debt in excess of NT$4 trillion left behind by the previous administration; his ambitious and enormously expensive 12 construction projects proposal; and a demoralized civil service. Mr. Ma will be unable to rely solely on image to meet these challenges.

"He needs to transform from a charismatic leader into a working leader," says KMT secretary-general Wu Den-yi. "Charismatic leaders inspire admiration. Working leaders inspire respect."

The results of the next four-year administration will bear heavily on Taiwan's future prospects. That is the challenge for the KMT, and for Taiwan's people, too.

But those familiar with Taiwan's most recent presidential election are also clear that the KMT's big victory was largely attributable to the voters' rejection of the poor performance of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, as well as to the individual charisma of Mr. Ma.

'Risen Again' yet Not 'Reborn'

The fundamental shape of the KMT has yet to see any change.

"The people haven't changed. The organization hasn't changed," says one seasoned journalist.

According to author and United Daily News columnist Chang Tso-ching, during its nearly 100 years in power in both China and in Taiwan since the founding of the Republic of China, the KMT has stood idly by as a multitude of abuses took root.

The KMT has "risen again," but it has not been "reborn."

"[The question of] whether the KMT's old habits of cronyism, corruption, shady money and internal power struggles will also accompany their 'triumphant return' is really rather unsettling," Chang says.

The KMT has its work cut out for it in the near-, medium- and long-term. In the near-term, the tone will be set for the working relationship between the Legislature and the Cabinet and the handling of issues related to party assets. The medium-term will determine whether elections for county executives, provincial city and town mayors, and county and city councilors to be held at the end of next year can be swept free of shady money, or "black gold" in Taiwanese political parlance. In the long-term, the KMT must accelerate the pace at which it brings up new talent, complete the passing of the generational torch and reinvent itself as a truly modern political party.

In the long run, whether the KMT will ultimately be a loosely affiliated electioneering machine or a rigidly disciplined party able to rein in its membership remains to be seen.

"Politics is organic," says KMT lawmaker Ting Shou-chung. "We'll have to wait and see what develops."

The Executive-Legislative Relationship

To meet the near-term challenge, the KMT must establish effective channels of communication between its legislative caucus and the Cabinet. As new government policy often involves changes to existing law or new legislation, the KMT must be responsible for bringing about consensus among its 81-member legislative caucus. With all lawmakers subject to considerations relevant to their local constituents, points of contention will inevitable arise and here the KMT must rely on the party's authority to reach some means of compromise.

The KMT must also find its direction with this new government. The party's past tenets that "the party leads the government" or "the party equals the government" are no longer applicable. During the administration of President Lee Teng-hui, who concurrently served as party chairman, government ministerial appointees were all vetted in the party's Central Standing Committee, where consensus was also reached on numerous pieces of legislation.

After eight years out of power, the Central Standing Committee has lost that function. KMT decision-makers must rebuild that channel of communications with the executive branch agencies. Ma's election in particular represents a break with the KMT's past image as a cesspool of shady money. But while the party's election campaign was successful, the party machinery is no longer the sole mobilizing force it once was.

With its adoption of a policy that "the party supports the government," the KMT has established an internal "conference of legislative committee members" and a "policy coordination report." Where there are conflicting opinions among the legislative and executive branches, lawmakers can communicate with ministers through the two bodies, and from there, kick it upstairs to the president if differences are irreconcilable. It is the first time the party has instituted such a system, and whether it succeeds, again, remains to be seen.

A number of highly placed individuals, however, believe that while the political center of gravity has shifted to the Executive Yuan and the presidential office, the Legislature will continue to pull out all the stops in retaining its position in policy formation. According to past CommonWealth Magazine State of the Nation surveys, the Legislature has consistently ranked as the nation's number-one source of disarray. Now that the KMT has a three-fourths majority, society will expect it to seize this opportunity to make necessary legal revisions to improve the character of the Legislature and boost legislative efficiency.

All too many lawmakers continue to claim to be "serving constituents" while actually pursuing their own interests. A number of executive branch officials say privately that the KMT caucus is even more prone to such practices than its DPP counterpart. During the first round of talks between lawmakers and incoming cabinet members, Legislator Wu Ching-chi (KMT – Panchiao, Taipei County), publicly called for lawmakers to enjoy an annual allotment of funds for public works projects, similar to those of county and city councilors and township representatives. This would be tantamount to initiating an open competition for public works kickbacks.

"This kind of viewpoint has become like a malignancy on the assembly. It's really improper to bring it up anymore," says Lee Chia-chin, another KMT lawmaker.

Sweeping Away the 'Black Gold'

For its medium-term challenge, the "three-in-one" elections at the end of next year, the KMT must distance itself from shady money. To be the party of "total governance, complete responsibility," the KMT needs to nominate candidates with squeaky-clean images, to both eliminate the influence of shady money at the local level and break the grip of local factions.

"With the rapid urbanization of Taiwan, the writing is on the wall for the local factions," Taoyuan county executive Chu Li-lun says. Consequently, the KMT will be no longer beholden to the local factions.

A number of politicos believe that as assembly decisions are based on a simple majority, the KMT has no need to secure an absolute majority. So long as they accurately calculate the number of votes they will receive, securing just over half of the seats will do. In some electoral districts candidates with absolutely no links to corruption should be fielded to build up their electoral experience. Win or lose, it is an experience anyone active in politics should undergo.

The KMT also need not win each of the 21 county executive and provincial city mayoral contests to show its clout. Observers suggest that in DPP strongholds like Kaohsiung County and Tainan County the KMT should field squeaky-clean candidates and run on the charismatic draw of the president and the KMT's administrative record over the next two years. Those that lose their elections will at least do so with honor.

Establishing a New Talent Pool

"I'm hoping that the passing of the generational torch within the KMT will be completed by August of next year," says KMT chairman Wu Poh-hsiung, citing his number-one objective before the end of his term in little over a year.

As one concerned observer notes, in this age of global competition, the KMT's competitors are not merely the DPP, but also the Chinese Communist Party. The most important factor determining future success in competition and cooperation with China will be turning out top-flight talent.

The continued operation of the KMT will increasingly rely on its human resources.

The KMT party central is powerless in cultivating human resources and, consequently, local leaders must rely on their own resourcefulness in securing talent. Taoyuan county executive Chu Li-lun, for example, spends a lot of time doing his own recruiting, training and mentoring young talent. Once these new faces gain experience within the Taoyuan County government, they can be moved to the central government or other posts. With new blood coming in, channels for other new personnel will be enhanced.

"Leaders need to become personnel training centers, not terminal points for talent," Chu says.

Many of Chu's underlings believe working on the local level is more rewarding in that they can actually implement policy, see it in action, and feel its effects. For example, former KMT lawmaker Apollo Chen, director of the Cultural Affairs Bureau for Chu's government, does not feel he's been demoted to the local level. Similarly, after his stint as spokesman for Ma's presidential campaign, Su Jun-pin immediately returned to the county government, as minister of Taoyuan's Environmental Protection Bureau.

"If you have an abundance of talent, candidates can be chosen for any election almost at random," Chu says. "There's no need to court the forces of ‘black gold.'"

After successfully transferring power between political parties twice, Taiwan seems to be moving from a transitional stage of democracy to a phase of democratic consolidation. The "total governance" of the KMT must be accompanied by "complete responsibility."

"This is a grand undertaking for our national posterity," says Chang Tso-ching. "Taiwan is just a step away from consolidating its democracy; those with ideals and a responsible political party should know what remains to be done."

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy