Taiwan set for year of leadership battles in its two major parties

Julian Kuo says key party and regional elections in Taiwan this year will see a fierce competition for leadership in both the KMT and DPP, testing Ma's political base and effectiveness as leader

Julian Kuo

Everything points to the year ahead being a time of turbulence and power shifts in Taiwanese politics. A major reshuffle is on the cards at both central and local government levels, and the odds are that it will pave the way for the post-Ma era.

Next month, for instance, Sean Lien, the son of former vice-president Lien Chan, may announce his plan to run for the post of Taipei mayor. In May, New Taipei mayor Eric Chu Li-luan could declare his intention not to run for re-election. Further, the Democratic Progressive Party is set to elect or re-elect its chairman.

Meanwhile, over the next few months, a heavy legislative agenda will see the Kuomintang try to secure passage of a cross-strait trade services agreement with the mainland and organise a planned referendum on the Lungmen nuclear power plant, the island's fourth. Premier Jiang Yi-huah will have to decide whether to stay on for a further term, and October may bring an official meeting between Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping .

The so-called "seven-in-one" municipal elections are slated for November and, by the end of December, we will know whether a deal under the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement will be successfully concluded.

If Sean Lien does run for mayorship, he is set to become a major force in the party against Ma

The actions of Sean Lien, a leading critic of Ma, could well set the tone for much of what follows. During the power struggle last September between Ma and legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng, Lien criticised Ma's administration for monitoring political foes as a way of dealing with them, as happened in the Ming dynasty. So if Lien does decide to run for mayorship, he is set to become a major force in the party against Ma.

But pro-Ma forces in the KMT might well take pre-emptive action. They could leak more unfavourable information to the media or opposition parties about the Lien family's activities, or dig up old scandals to discourage him from running.

Still, if Lien secures his party's nomination for the election, it would be a relatively small step compared with the much larger political shift in the KMT that could occur should Chu decide not to contest the New Taipei mayoral election. At that point, Chu might not reveal his plans for the presidency in 2016, but many people would make that assumption on his behalf.

If Chu takes this course, Ma will have to rethink his succession planning. Chu may well challenge Vice-President Wu Den-yih, who is generally regarded as Ma's handpicked successor. Chu's move might also suggest to middle-aged party members that they should start competing more actively to succeed their seniors. Born in 1961, Chu has the right credentials and a good track record and scores consistently higher than Wu in popularity polls.

While the KMT is expected to face personnel changes this year, the DPP will look to elect a new chairman on May 27. Struggles over which political line the party should take seem inevitable. Already, former premier Frank Hsieh Chang-ting has thrown down the gauntlet to chairman Su Tseng-chang and is expected to declare his run for the party leadership next month. Former DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen will have to decide if she will support Hsieh in the election or run on her own.

Both Su's and Tsai's camps see the election as a "skirmish" in the run-up to the presidential nomination and there could be bitter internal conflict in the party over the next two months.

This year may also see some tough battles between the ruling and opposition parties in the Legislative Yuan. Last December, the KMT backed away from its plan to push through the cross-strait trade services agreement and postponed its review until March 10. However, Ma will have to fully mobilise supporters to get the agreement passed, in order to prove to mainland counterparts his ability to govern and to kick-start follow-up negotiations in accordance with the cross-strait trade agreement.

The controversy over the island's fourth nuclear power plant, located in New Taipei City, will be a factor in elections there and has prompted calls for a referendum to decide the fate of the project. Premier Jiang has gambled his political career by pledging to step down if the public voted in favour of halting construction. Therefore, if a "no" vote does prevail, the pro-Eric Chu faction within the KMT may well demand Jiang's resignation to push him out of the way.

If the KMT were to go ahead forcibly with a vote on the cross-strait trade services agreement or boycott the referendum, this would prompt a backlash in opinion polls, adversely affecting the outcome of the 2014 regional elections. Should this happen, Ma, whose public popularity has already reached a new low, would lose the support of KMT candidates across the island. This is likely to boost the popularity of Chu and Lien within the party, to the detriment of Ma's handpicked successor, Vice-President Wu.

In the mayoral elections for six main cities, the KMT could well lose in three of them, while in elections for county magistrates, the DPP enjoys good prospects of victory.

If KMT does lose three of the six main cities, it could easily end up losing three or four counties. This, along with the likelihood of fewer KMT seats for its rural and township leaders and local council representatives, might pose a serious threat to Ma's leadership. The emergence of Chu and Lien as the party's new stars would allow the anti-Ma faction to take the opportunity to demand a reshuffle. Even if Ma insists on staying on as party chairman, he may have no choice but to promote Chu and Lien and reach a power-sharing arrangement with them.

If the DDP wins in the regional elections this year, does that mean it would secure a presidential election victory in 2016? Some say history may repeat itself, citing the KMT's return to power in 2008 following its victory in the 2006 regional elections.

However, the KMT and DPP are quite different. In the 2006 and 2008 elections, the KMT stressed its opposition to then president Chen Shui-bian and his corruption, and it won both elections. The DPP is employing similar tactics in the regional elections this year by opposing Ma and highlighting his deficiencies. However, although the party does not need to deal with cross-strait issues - its weakest policy area - in regional ballots, it won't be able to avoid this in the presidential election. The DPP chairman will need to address the issue of cross-strait policy.

By contrast, if the KMT is defeated in the regional elections, it might stir a stronger sense of crisis, prompting members to demand Ma relinquish power in favour of Chu.

This might even become the mainstream thinking - unless Ma still feels he can battle on and cling to power.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Power games