Loyalties of new KMT chief are not clear-cut
Touted by many as a future president, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou is one step closer to the goal. Yesterday, members of Taiwan's largest opposition party, the Kuomintang, overwhelmingly chose him as its next leader in the first election for party chairmanship in its 111-year history.
Mr Ma, 55, now seems set to carry the KMT's banner in the 2008 presidential elections - all the more so because it looks like he has surmounted the ethnic divide between Taiwanese of mainland and native origin. If he can wrest the presidency from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, he stands a good chance of opening a new era in cross-strait relations and steering Taiwan towards calmer waters.
A telegenic, Harvard-educated politician with a reputation for incorruptibility, Mr Ma defeated legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, 64, who had run a campaign built around his greater experience and image as a consummate team player. Although the contest was expected to be very close, Mr Ma garnered more than twice as many votes as his opponent.
Clearly, the 50.17 per cent of the KMT's 1.04 million rank-and-file members who cast their ballots were looking for a charismatic figure, rather than a party stalwart, to revitalise their lacklustre organisation. Its outgoing chairman, Lien Chan, lost two consecutive presidential elections to the DPP's Chen Shui-bian, relegating the KMT to the unaccustomed role of the opposition after ruling the island with an iron fist for 51 years.
Mr Ma's crushing victory will make it easier for him to consolidate power and carry out his campaign pledges. He has promised to reinvent the KMT as a modern political force by eliminating money politics, curbing factional rivalry, pushing through democratic reforms and recruiting younger members.
Mr Ma is less liked by party insiders than Mr Wang. In 1996 as justice minister, his pursuit of official corruption rankled his political brethrens so much that he lost his job. But the huge grass-roots support he received yesterday will provide crucial leverage in tackling the party's vested interests.
The upsurge in Mr Ma's political capital will also be felt in the KMT's 'pan-Blue' alliance partner, the People First Party. Its leader, James Soong Chu-yu, is no fan of Mr Ma's. But he is sure to come under intense pressure to rally PFP supporters around Mr Ma as the opposition prepares for the presidential election in three years.
One thing that will remain steady under Mr Ma's leadership will be the KMT's cross-strait policy. Both he and Mr Wang strongly back Mr Lien's breakthrough peace initiative earlier this year, which resulted in the first mainland visit by a KMT leader in 56 years.
In a historic meeting in Beijing with President Hu Jintao, Mr Lien expressed the KMT's support of the 'one-China principle' in return for Beijing's promise to forge closer economic ties, help raise Taiwan's international profile and hold regular talks.
Mr Ma, whose parents were from the mainland, has repeatedly stated his opposition to an independent Taiwan and even criticised Mr Wang's suggestion that the KMT should consider it as an option.
Beijing, of course, has been watching the KMT poll with keen interest. The party's anti-independence stance means Beijing would clearly prefer to see it running Taiwan than the DPP. But it would be a mistake to take Mr Ma's allegiances for granted. He is a staunch anti-communist who has criticised the mainland's Anti-Secession Law and supported the June 4 Tiananmen protesters.
Beijing would be wise to avoid betting on a single politician to improve cross-strait relations. Ultimately, the Taiwanese people are who it needs to win over. Mr Ma would not be where he is today if he did not understand the aspirations of his fellow islanders.