aiwan’s lawmakers have thoroughly embarrassed the island’s democratic system on countless occasions: they have brawled, bit and scratched each other in the government’s debating chambers and have brought politics to complete a standstill with filibusters. Now the man charged with controlling all the silliness, popular speaker of the legislature Wang Jin-pyng, has been ousted by President Ma Ying-jeou.
Since 1999, Wang had been Taiwan’s uber-powerbroker and second most influential politician. When he was ousted by his Kuomintang (KMT) colleague Ma on September 11, it was not for incompetence.
The Ma government said it had caught Wang preventing an appeal against his buddy, opposition Democratic Progressive Party
(DPP) caucus whip Ker Chien-ming, who was recently found not guilty in an embezzlement case. Ker was being legally wiretapped as, although Taiwan’s legislators have immunity from being prosecuted for most crimes, the scope of this exemption has narrowed in recent years in response to abuse.
Upon being told of Wang’s wrongdoings by the Special Investigation Division (SID), Ma, a former justice minister who swept to power on a promise to wipe out corruption, wasted no time. He first dismissed Justice Minister Tseng Yung-fu immediately for his apparent complicity and did not wait for Wang to return from his daughter’s wedding on a remote Malaysian island before rendering the presidential verdict on the immensely popular speaker.
Otherwise soft-spoken Ma said the incident was “the most shameful day in the development of Taiwan’s democracy”, and Wang’s influence peddling amounted “to the most serious infringement” of the judiciary’s independence. In his capacity as chairman of the ruling Kuomintang, Ma also ordered Wang’s party membership be stripped before the disciplinary committee had the slightest chance to reach a decision.
Setting the stage for a really big intra-KMT showdown yet to come, a Taipei court later invalidated the revocation of Wang’s membership rights, effectively enabling him to stay on the speaker job until he has exhausted his legal action for reinstatement.
Opinion polls show that hardly anyone on the island buys into Ma’s narrative that he had no choice but purging Wang because the veteran politician has breached the party’s high moral standards. According to one, 64% saw at least partial political persecution in Ma’s actions.
After all, Ma won leadership of the party in 2005 by defeating Wang and the old guard. In recent months, the legislative speaker has increasingly been at odds with the president over highly-controversial legislative bills crucial to the Ma government, such as a service trade agreement with China and a proposed referendum on nuclear power.
According to yet another school of thought, Ma, by trying to kick Wang out, fights the “four families conspiracy” against him holding the KMT chairmanship.
The four families allegedly wanting to replace Ma with Wang in that job are the Liens (honorary KMT chairman Lien Chan and his eldest son, former Taipei EasyCard Corp chairman Sean Lien), the Wus (honorary KMT chairman Wu Po-hsiung), the Haus (Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-bin) and the Chus (New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu).
“If President Ma had information proving Wang did something seriously wrong, he would be right to remove Wang from the Speaker’s position by ‘withdrawing the whip’ [a British term for expelling a lawmaker from their party],” Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, said in an interview with Asia Times Online. “But I do not know if this is so clearly black and white; few things are in politics.”
On Monday, Ma denied the theories. “There was no conspiracy and it does not involve a [political] struggle,” he said.
Reading the tea leaves
According to Tsang, the Wang case is not going to go away quickly, and the developments will have significant implications for intra-party politics within the KMT. Complicating things is that the case is one of ethnicity, as Wang is Taiwan-born and Ma mainland-born, with the former symbolizing the nativist wing within the KMT.
“A dramatic removal of Wang by a non-nativist president-chairman will reverberate within the party,” Tsang said. He added, however, that it is too early to say whether the immense tension to be caused within the party will tear it apart.
Geographic factors are also working against the KMT. Wang hails from Taiwan’s south, a traditional DPP stronghold, and that his party membership revocation will lost the KMT some support in southern Taiwan has already become evident – 11 KMT borough wardens have quit the party in protest over the matter.
Still, even though Ma’s approval ratings have hit dismal single digits over the controversy, most dangerous intra-party rivals have conspicuously refrained from charging enemy lines for now. Lien Sr and Lien Jr were quick to criticize Ma. Yet what they have actually said since (Lien Jr likened the SID to a sinister Ming-dynasty intelligence unit reporting directly to the emperor) fell far short of a genuine battle cry.
Taipei Mayor Hau even briefly disappeared upon the tumult’s outbreak, reportedly so as not to be forced to comment. New Taipei City Mayor Chu and honorary KMT chairman Wu Po-hsiung making noises are markedly silent.
Obviously the reason for such self-restraint is that the next polls – the 2014 elections for mayors of the five major municipalities and local county magistrates – are still quite a long way of. The KMT expects a serious beating in those polls, so Ma’s rivals presumably much prefer to duck and cover for the time being only to emerge as the saviors afterwards.
Wang, however, might find it difficult staying relevant until then. According to John F Copper, a Taiwan expert and professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, this is “because he does not have a constituency [legislators-at-large are appointed by the party as opposed to being directly elected], and it is doubtable that the DPP will want to welcome him into their ranks.”
Although Copper does think the current standoff is serious and will hurt Ma in the short run, he feels that “the president’s devotion to honesty in government and his unbending efforts to wipe out corruption will eventually pay off”.
It was these features of Ma’s personality that had kept the party out of trouble and, importantly, cultivated an image of the KMT as a clean party, Copper said. “It was also good for Taiwan’s democratic system, as corruption is the bane of democracy and good government,” he said.
And, as Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post has aptly pointed out, it might also be good for Taiwan’s investor-friendly image. That has suffered quite a bit recently, particularly since July, when Berlin-based Transparency International released a survey saying judicial bribery had risen from 12% to 36% since 2010, putting Taiwan on a par with Ghana and Mozambique.
“Cleanliness counts, because Taiwan competes vigorously with its Asian neighbors for investment to sustain an export-reliant economy…,” said the article “Under-fire Taiwan in anti-graft drive” by Ralph Jennings. “Taiwan wants to be seen as a place with clear, consistent rules for business, despite mounting complaints of graft and a recent critical report by a non-governmental organization.”
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
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