Ma Ying-jeou to use Kuomintang congress to shore up his support
Taiwanese leader is using party congress to introduce a proposal to make the island's president automatically head of the KMT
Members of Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang gather today in the central city of Taichung for their annual congress, at which chairman Ma Ying-jeou is expected to shore up support for the final years of his presidency.
The meeting of more than 1,000 KMT members had been shaping up as a rocky battle over Ma's grip on the ruling party. Rivals had hoped to take advantage of a president weakened by his failure to dislodge long-time rival and legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng.
But analysts say a proposal that is likely to receive majority backing by members has undercut the ability of Ma's opponents to mount any effective challenge to his leadership.
It calls for any member who is elected as the island's president to automatically be made the head of the party. Such an arrangement would help insulate Ma from any hit the KMT takes in polls scheduled for next year, observers say.
The congress will also see Ma nominate six vice-chairmen, but he has already indicated he intends to put forward the names of the current office-holders. None are leading contenders to succeed him as president in 2016, and by keeping them in place, Ma forces rivals to keep guessing about his eventual preference for political heir.
"Even if the KMT is defeated in next year's … local elections, Ma will still be able to stay as chairman and retain his influence until his remaining term ends in May 2016," said George Tsai Wei, a professor of political science at Chinese Culture University in Taipei.
The proposal to link the party chairmanship with the presidency was approved by the KMT's Central Standing Committee on Wednesday. The change will require a majority of votes today to be adopted into the party's charter, but Tsai expects delegates will back it.
The idea has met with sharp criticism from Ma's opponents, who questioned the timing of its introduction, coming just ahead of next year's "seven in one" elections. Following a decision reached three years ago, the island will combine seven polls - for councillor positions at the level of city down to borough heads - into one election, in a bid to cut costs.
If adopted, the change would cut short Ma's tenure as party chief by one year, as his term expires in 2017. But it allows him to outmanoeuvre rivals who plan to unseat him if the KMT suffers electoral setbacks next year.
"The proposal could become a way [for Ma] to avoid the responsibility for electoral setbacks next year," said Lee Te-wei, a Central Committee member and one of the leaders of the 567 Alliance, which groups younger KMT members together.
During his 2008 campaign, Ma vowed not to take on the role of party chair if elected president, but he now defends the proposal as "what grass-roots members hoped to see".
"The KMT should not have two suns at the same time," Ma said, adding it was necessary for the president to automatically serve as the party leader to ensure close co-operation between the KMT and the government.
Local pundits and news media have predicted poor election results for the KMT in next year's polls due to public dissatisfaction over the performance of Ma and his government.
The sagging economy and the government's perceived missteps in introducing various new measures, such as energy-price increases, helped to send Ma's approval rating to a record low of 9 per cent in September.
A party executive said the main rival faction within the KMT had hoped to propose in the national congress that the chairman step down to take responsibility for any upcoming electoral defeat, and exploit the damage Ma suffered in his political fight with the legislative speaker.
"Their attempt to raise that proposal would be in vain, not to mention trying to use the September incident to drag Ma down," the executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Ma and Wang clashed in September, after the president accused the speaker of illegally lobbying judicial authorities in a case involving a key figure in the opposition. But Wang succeeded in shifting attention to the government's alleged illegal wiretapping of the legislature.
The fight ended in the middle of last month, with Wang winning public sympathy and support from party elders including honorary chairman Lien Chan.
Local commentators said Lien - viewed as a member of the anti-Ma camp - had chosen to stay out of the infighting for now, given a scandal involving his daughter's investments in a weight-loss company suspected of using banned substances.
"There is a possibility that she can avoid the legal spotlight if the Lien family stays out of the infighting," said Hsu Kuo-yung, a political talk show host.
Meanwhile, Ma has decided to make no changes in the line-up of the KMT's six vice-chairmen, according to party spokesman Yang Wei-chung.
Tsai, of the Chinese Culture University, said that by avoiding changes to the posts, Ma could "avert becoming a lame duck".
Vice-President Wu Den-yih, New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu Li-luan and Premier Jiang Yi-huah are seen as the KMT's likely candidates for the 2016 presidential election.
None hold party deputy chairmanships, allowing Ma to keep his preferences for a potential successor to himself. That kept challengers in check, as they could not formulate a strategy, Tsai said.