The KMT Puzzle and Ma’s ‘Imperial Presidency’

Strict party discipline, a flawed constitutional system and an opposition that is too busy waging internal battles explain why the highly unpopular president has survived
Don Rodgers

During his second term, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) approval has been consistently abysmal, ranging from a low of 9% to a high of about 20%. This presents observers of Taiwan’s democratic politics with a tremendous mystery. The mystery is certainly not why he is so unpopular. He is a failed president who has demonstrated no leadership skills, vision, or compassion. His administration was unable or unwilling to adequately respond to numerous problems confronting the country, ranging from disaster relief to inflation, economic inequality, land rights, and social justice. He has been aloof and comes across as indignant whenever the people dare to ask him to explain his policies. Yet, as weak as he is in many respects, he still behaves as an imperial president.

The imperial president is one who exceeds his constitutional limits and whose power is out of control. So, how can we achieve the oxymoronic outcome of a weak imperial president? Ma is able to act as an imperial president not because of any particular leadership strengths, and certainly not because of his popular support, but rather because he is propped up by the power of a dysfunctional Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and a flawed constitutional system.

The KMT is not a democratic political party, but instead a political party in a democracy. The KMT was formed as a Leninist political party, meaning that the party structure was highly centralized and hierarchical, decisions were made at the center, and the center demanded absolute party loyalty and discipline. Although the party has implemented some reforms since its early years, there are still many vestiges of its Leninist roots. Control of party resources is highly centralized, and loyalty is rewarded with financial support and patronage. Add to that the KMT’s vast wealth and the extensive organizational network it was able to build in Taiwan during almost five decades of one-party, authoritarian rule, and you have a party that has tremendous power to control political outcomes. The party has essentially unlimited resources to run its campaigns, to advertise and promote its policies through a compliant media, and to offer financial reward to those who support it unquestioningly. As president and KMT party chairman, Ma simultaneously controls and benefits from this immense power structure.

Yet, even with the power of his party, Ma’s ability to survive, to continue to push his policies, and to gain legislative support in the face of his abysmal approval ratings makes little sense. The president acts as if he is oblivious to the strength of opposition to him and his policies. He appears unwilling to discuss compromise, and his typical response to opposition is to claim that the people simply do not understand his policies. He gives no indication that he believes his job is to represent the people of Taiwan, the people who voted for him.

We might just chalk Ma’s behavior up to hubris, but a portion of the blame also rests with the problematic constitutional structure that fails to clearly delineate responsibilities of the president and the premier and thus allows the president to pass blame for failed domestic policies onto a his premier and his cabinet. When he claims that lack of support is caused by poor communication or poor implementation, he is blaming not himself, but instead his cabinet and other KMT leaders. In this way he absolves himself for responsibility for flaws, even while desiring credit for his leadership. He appears to want a leadership role without accountability, and the current party and constitutional structure have helped him to a point. But now he is tremendously unpopular, and the structure might be showing signs of collapse.

What may be even more puzzling is the behavior of the KMT legislators who have continued to support their unpopular president and his unpopular policies. As stated above, the party demands loyalty, and a member of the party who hopes to gain party support must toe the line. At some point, however, the candidates must recognize that there are diminishing returns on investing in Ma.

Imagine a hypothetical KMT representative who represents a district where only 10% of the people approve of the president and where a similar number are strongly opposed to a particular presidential policy or action. At some point rational thought must dictate that the representative must defect from the party line to appease his or her voters at home. Yes, this may mean sacrificing the support of the party, at least in the short term, but what do you have to lose if by supporting the party you are supporting a president and policies your local voters despise? Elected representatives must realize that it is in their best interest to begin to represent the views of their voters at home.

This seemingly irrational behavior was propped up by the power of the KMT machine. These representatives were able to get elected and reelected by toeing the party line. But it seems likely that this line is fraying. We have started to see some small-scale defections with, for example, the responses of some KMT leaders to the Sunflower protests, and disputes over nominations. While it is no secret that the KMT has factions and factional infighting, through the control and allocation of party resources the party has long been able to keep those fights relatively hidden from the public eye and project an image of consensus and unity to the public. But now we might be witnessing public signs of the fractures in the KMT. This is actually a positive development for Taiwan’s democratic system.

Moving forward, in addition to constitutional reform that more clearly defines the authority of the president and premier, Taiwan’s democratic progress will hinge on reform within the KMT.

First, the KMT must find a way to democratize its internal processes to be more responsive to the voters. It is no coincidence that what appears to be the rising generation of KMT leaders includes many of the sons or close associates of the old leaders. The leadership selection process is still too strongly based on networks and nepotism, precluding the party from recruiting and training new, more independent and responsive KMT leaders.

Second, KMT legislators must strive to represent their constituents rather than the party center. KMT politicians will have to be willing to respond to and represent their voters and be willing and able to resist or openly defy the party when they recognize that the center is implementing unpopular policies and causing them to lose support.

Finally, the KMT will also have to redefine its norms of party loyalty and discipline. While this might be painful for the party in the short term, it will benefit the party’s quality of representation in the longer term by allowing the party to more adequately adapt to a changing political environment and be more flexible in responding to more immediate policy challenges.

The push for change rests in the hands of the voters, who must be willing and able to more critically evaluate their representatives and hold them more accountable for their actions. The voters must be very active in pushing the candidates to address the issues that matter to them and then to hold them accountable once they are elected. The recently initiated Appendectomy Project is an intriguing effort to push voters to be more aware of the behavior of their elected officials.

Of course, finally, much of the hope for change in Taiwan’s political system hinges on the strengthening of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP must find a way to regain the trust of the voters and to convince them that they can — and will — overcome factional infighting and work to respond to the needs of the voters. While the KMT has long been able to crush intraparty democracy to ensure electoral success, the DPP’s very public intraparty conflict has contributed to its electoral failure. The party must develop better mechanisms for rationally negotiating and resolving internal disputes, and demonstrate that it is effectively listening and responding to the voters’ concerns instead of focusing on internal battles. Showing the voters that it can manage its party affairs will help the DPP convince voters that it is ready to manage national affairs.


Donald Rodgers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Austin College.

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