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Sep 16, 2013 | 10:21 GMT

5 mins read

Taiwan: A Party Dismissal Bodes Ill for the Kuomintang

(Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

A recent power struggle within Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang corresponds with the country's deep-seated political and ethnic disparities. Like the island itself, the party is roughly divided between early generations of Taiwanese residents, who consider themselves natives, and immigrants who came to Taiwan from China in the 1940s, often referred to as "mainlanders." This explains why Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's recent move against a rival underscores the island's inherent political issues. On Sept. 11, Ma — a mainlander — revoked the party membership of Wang Jin-pyng, the country's powerful indigenous parliamentary speaker.

It is unclear what long-term consequences will come about from Wang's removal. Certainly it will further aggravate tensions within the Kuomintang, but given Wang's popularity and influence, it could also lead to the creation of a viable third party that could threaten the Kuomintang's political dominance. Otherwise, Wang could align himself with the political opposition. Any political realignment will concern Beijing, which considers the Kuomintang's aversion to independence critical for easing cross-strait tensions.

The current spat began over allegations that Wang misused political power. He stood accused of interfering in a court case and of lobbying a former justice minister to appeal the acquittal of a lawmaker for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. As a result, Wang lost his party membership, albeit temporarily. (He later appealed the dismissal in court successfully and has since been reinstated.) Nonetheless, his expulsion will likely end his 14-year stint as the head of the parliament.

Removing an Obstacle

In some sense, the scandal was merely an extension of a long-standing power struggle between Ma and Wang and their respective bases of support. The struggle became public in 2005, when the two officials each contended for the Kuomintang chairmanship. Ma won with 72.4 percent of the votes. However, Wang remained very influential, due in part to nearly four decades of experience and to extensive political networks both inside and outside the Kuomintang. He has used his position and influence to challenge the Ma presidency for years. For example, he supposedly has obstructed the passage of several important presidential proposals — even though he and Ma share allegiance to the same party.

The timing of the dismissal is notable. Ma's support is currently dwindling, so he is promoting several policies that he hopes will salvage his career as elections approach. In this context, Wang's expulsion is widely seen as an effort to consolidate power and remove an obstacle that could block some of these policy proposals in the legislature. Among the proposals are a nuclear plant bill and a cross-strait service trade agreement, a key follow-up to the milestone cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement signed in 2010.

Ma has tried to portray Wang's dismissal as an effort to protect the integrity of the justice system, but the public is unconvinced. A recent survey showed that only 11 percent of Taiwanese citizens support Ma. By comparison, Wang's support rate is a little higher than 60 percent. Lackluster support may prevent Ma from implementing his policy proposals.

Polarization

These challenges become more pronounced in Taiwan's polarized political atmosphere. An overarching theme in contemporary Taiwanese politics and society, this polarization stems from the island's geopolitical environment and divided ethnicity — namely, the mainlanders who fled China in the mid-20th century and the native populations that have resided on the island for a much longer period. The former group is a minority, comprising only 15 percent of the population. Consequently, the country broadly boasts two predominant identities — a Taiwanese national identity and an ethnic Chinese identity — and this duality has shaped the debate over Taiwanese independence for years. 

Taiwan: A Party Dismissal Bodes Ill for the Kuomintang

Taiwan and China

In Taiwan, there are several political parties, but only two dominate politics. The Kuomintang is generally regarded as the party of the mainlanders, and the Democratic Progressive Party, with its Taiwanese nationalist and pro-independence agenda, is regarded as the party of the indigenous Taiwanese. The Kuomintang ruled in a single-party system until the 1980s, when it faced accusations of over-dominance and corruption. Unsurprisingly, indigenous parties began to grow more popular, so Kuomintang politicians were forced to widen their appeal to the indigenous to secure their rule. In fact, Lee Teng-hui, the president who oversaw Taiwan's democratic transition at the end of the 20th century, was an indigenous Kuomintang politician.

Thus, ethnic and political divisions between mainlanders and natives also exist within the Kuomintang. This is why Wang's dismissal bodes ill for intra-Kuomintang politics. Wang is among the most prominent members of the indigenous camp, and he helped secure support for the party in southern Taiwan, an indigenous political stronghold. But what could hurt the Kuomintang even more is if Wang, given his influence and networks, creates his own party ahead of the 2014 and 2016 elections as some observers have suggested. This actually happened in the early 2000s, when James Soong broke off from the Kuomintang and ran for the presidency on the People First Party ticket. He poached votes from the Kuomintang, effectively giving the presidency to the Democratic Progressive Party's Chen Shui-bian.

Even if he does not form his own party, Wang could still align with the opposition. As an indigenous politician, he and the Democratic Progressive Party have similar agendas and a shared power base.

Beijing's Concern

China would be concerned by a political realignment in Taiwan. Although Beijing has little influence in Taipei, it has long considered Taiwan's mainlanders a proxy group through which it could confer some degree of political and economic influence. China's ultimate goal, of course, is eventual reunification, and Beijing believes it has a much better chance, albeit a remote one, of achieving this goal with the Kuomintang in power. At the very least, the Kuomintang would prevent the island from distancing itself further from Chinese interests. To that end, Beijing has attempted to cultivate mainlander politicians, catering to their power bases through political or economic incentives.

Since 2008, the Kuomintang has made several proposals to integrate economically with mainland China. And yet its strategy is to benefit from China's economic success while carving out enough space to maintain its autonomy. Beijing understands that as long as the possibility for reunification exists, there is little reason to force the issue. Still, the Kuomintang's dissonance and its declining popularity represent a serious challenge to the Chinese leadership. Beijing does not want to see its cross-strait strategy complicated by political tensions and unpredictability in Taiwan.

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