Beijing’s brake in place for post-Ma Taiwan

 For Asia Times Online
TAIPEI – The worst fear of Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the face of it became a reality on November 1. In a move that might crush President Ma Ying-jeou’s chances of re-election, People First Party (PFP) chairman James Soong Chu-yu officially announced his presidential bid.

Although the likelihood of Soong becoming president is almost zero, his bid is significant as it will split the voter base of the Beijing-friendly camp in Taiwanese politics to the benefit of the

anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate, DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen.

To the KMT, this is painful deja vu. In the lead-up to polls in 2000, Soong split from the KMT and ran as an independent, with the KMT subsequently losing power to the DPP for the first time. While a similar scenario is again on the horizon, Beijing is much better positioned, since Soong will likely become a reliable hedging tool against DPP adventurism.

When Soong turned the vote into a three-way race between him, Ma and Tsai by delivering 355,589 signatures in support of his bid to the Central Election Commission, several reasons were named as his motivations to stand on January 14, 2012.

Soong said the Ma administration had failed to revive the island’s economy and reduce the unemployment rate. He accused Ma of general incompetence and for having establishing a “dictatorship” when he clandestinely promoted his buddy and re-election campaign strategist King Pu-tsung into the ranks of Taiwan’s quasi-top decision-makers. Leaving room for guesses, Soong described one of his opposing candidates as unsatisfactory and the other as untrustworthy.

It’s hardly a secret that Soong’s attempt to spoil Ma’s chances isn’t all about the current political situation, with virtually every Taiwanese aware that the seeds of the rivalry were sown years ago.

Both men share remarkably similar backgrounds, being presented with almost identical opportunities in their early lives. Ma and Soong were born on the mainland side of the Taiwan Strait as KMT princelings – the former a son of a high-ranking party official, the latter as the son of a general. They both earned their doctorates in the US and on return to Taiwan became English secretaries of the late Chiang Ching-kuo – Soong while Chiang served as premier, Ma while Chiang was president.

Soong subsequently ascended to the position of propaganda minister, a job which allowed him to develop good relations with Taiwan’s entertainers and the media. It was through these connections that he created a hallmark, easy-going “American” style, much appreciated in an era often described as a “soft dictatorship” under Chiang.

Chiang died in 1988 and Lee Teng-hui took the helm, Soong was promoted to KMT secretary general, and in 1993, the same year, Ma became justice minister to the governor of Taiwan province.

In this position, it is said, Soong set foot in virtually every Taiwanese township. Even today, the living rooms of tens of thousands of retired government employees such as policemen, teachers and rail workers across the island are still adorned with photographs depicting them shaking hands with Soong at some local function.

The down-to-earth image Soong earned himself stands in sharp contrast to Ma’s. Then and now, and especially since Ma in 2009 as the president botched his response in the aftermath of the devastating Typhoon Morakot (blasting families who had lost their loved ones just a few hours earlier for not having evacuated), people have thought of Ma as an arrogant official who much prefers his comfortable office in Taipei to interacting with the population.

It was the year 2000 that brought about the first high-profile showdown between Ma and Soong. After losing the KMT presidential nomination to then-vice president Lien Chan, Soong ran as an independent. Opinion polls strongly suggested Soong was about to win the race, but suddenly news broke that his son owned several houses in the US, and that the Soong family had much more money in its bank accounts than declared.

After Soong failed to explain the source of the fortune in a timely manner, Ma quickly stepped in front of the cameras to effectively stab Soong in the back. Then, it was not the KMT’s Lien, nor Soong, but the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian who won. Under Chen’s tenure, Taiwan was steered toward formal independence, and cross-strait relations went very sour. Soong went on to found his PFP, drawing supporters mainly from the KMT.

Today, the KMT has much reason to fret that Soong’s decision to run will again cause heaven to fall. This is especially so as he entered the race as Ma finds himself in a particularly bad patch. A half-baked proposal for a cross-strait peace accord Ma recently made unsettled his own constituency unnecessarily while uniting his opponents. (See Taiwan’s Ma talks peace but gets an earful, Asia Times Online, Oct 26, ’11)

A recent cabinet decision to raise monthly subsidies for elderly farmers by only about 5% didn’t help either. Yet another major setback waits in the wings; it’s been uncovered that the Ma administration spent an astronomical US$7.15 million on the staging of a two-night rock musical just days after it decided to cut milk subsidies for poor children.

In an interview with Asia Times Online, Chen In-Chin, a professor at Taiwan’s National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government, explained the significant implications of Soong’s bid.

“Of course, Soong knows he cannot become president. But the PFP can win several legislative seats [in the simultaneously held legislative elections] because him running for presidency ensures the media spotlight will be kept on the party,” Chen said.

He explained that Soong’s party had a good chance to get one seat in the eastern city of Hualien, one on the outlying island of Kinmen as well as three through an Aboriginal vote. It would only take three seats for the PFP to establish its own faction in the legislature, Chen said.

“The DPP’s Tsai might win the presidential race, but her party will fail to obtain a legislative majority. Like this, she will be forced to form a coalition with the PFP, effectively turning Soong into a kingmaker.”

According to Chen, such a scenario will help Soong get even with Lien Chan. Lien currently functions as Ma’s representative to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, a job Lien holds dearly but likely will be snatched away by Soong.

Chen argued that while on the surface Beijing will throw all its support behind Ma, it sees Soong as a hedging mechanism. Tsai rang Chinese President Hu Jintao’s alarm bells by promising her constituency that if elected she would reassess the landmark cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) Beijing and Taipei signed last yea. That is reassessment is unlikely to take place if Soong has a say.

And there’s another feature of Soong’s PFP that Beijing certainly is very aware of: The party has a history of putting the brakes on military purchases.

“If Tsai wins, Soong will become very important for the CCP as he is trusted by Beijing. Like Ma, he recognizes the ‘one-China’ principle; his cross-strait stance doesn’t differ from that of the KMT.”

Chen holds that there’s little reason to doubt Beijing has calculated everything thoroughly and calmly. One the one hand the Chinese leadership recognizes that Ma’s hallmark mistakes could ruin his campaign on any given day and on the other that Soong is a reliable friend of Beijing and regarded as very competent by the Taiwanese, according to Chen.

“To Beijing, Ma Ying-jeou’s re-election is of course the favored outcome; but Tsai Ing-wen with James Soong attached as a shackle is the best possible backup plan,” Chen concluded.

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