Written by Michael Turton.

Two weeks ago President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan decided to drop a giant rock into the torpid waters of the island’s late-summer political scene when he had his party, the Kuomintang (KMT), remove the KMT Speaker of the legislature, Wang Jin-pyng. This triggered a political crisis that is still rolling waves across the island two weeks later.

The story began on September 6, when Special Investigative Division (SID/SIU) prosecutors held a press conference to accuse Wang, Minister of Justice Tseng Yung-fu, and a chief prosecutor of influence peddling in a case involving opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) whip Ker Chian-ming. It seems that the SID had been tapping Ker’s phones to gather evidence in an unrelated case, and overheard a conversation in which Wang appeared to assure Ker that prosecutors would not appeal the case against him that they’d just lost, because he’d fixed it.

Despite the fact that all parties denied that they had engaged in influence peddling, and that no direct evidence showed that Wang had ever discussed the case with Minister Tseng, the latter was pressured to resign. It became obvious that he was just the collateral damage; the real target was Speaker Wang. Piling on rhetorical pressure in the media, the President accused Wang of “the most serious infringement of Taiwan’s judicial independence” and said it was “most shameful day in the development of Taiwan’s democracy”. Ma’s speeches consistently presented Wang’s guilt as a fact.

And what a coincidence! The day the SID prosecutors and Ma launched their campaign in the press, Wang had left the country for Malaysia to attend his daughter’s wedding. Indeed, it emerged that the prosecutors, in what appeared to be a clear violation of their public duties, had reported to Ma about the case in private, and that Ma had then used that knowledge, also a violation of his position.

Despite widespread public criticism, Ma continued to attack Wang based on the presumption of Wang’s guilt, though prosecutors had filed no formal charges. Lo Chih-chiang, deputy secretary-general of the Presidential Office, obviously relaying Ma’s own position, said: “The moment Wang used his influence to call Ker Chien-ming, Tseng Yung-fu and Chen Shou-huang (head of the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office), the justice system was shamed.”

Wang returned to face off with Ma. Within a week the President, who is also Chairman of the KMT, had convened a meeting of the party’s internal disciplinary committee on the 11th and kicked Wang out of the KMT (he can apply for reinstatement after two years) for “influence peddling”. Ma claimed that he had to “take a stand.” Wang was seated in the legislature as an at-large KMT representative, not elected out of any district. Hence, removal from the party meant loss of seat and as a result, loss of his Speakership, after nearly 40 years in the legislature.

Wang quickly struck back, asking a lower court for an injunction against his removal. The Court agreed and granted his request. The KMT appealed and the case is now sitting in the higher court awaiting adjudication. Frozen Garlic, the excellent Taiwan elections blog, pointed out that Wang had asked for a public lottery for assignment of the judge, but the computer assigned a judge married to a senior KMT member. Wang may have simply been laying the groundwork to discredit the ultimate decision against him, but it does seem like a powerful signal that he perceives the judge selection system is rigged.

Because Ma’s actions involved the President using the party processes to remove a sitting Speaker of the Legislature, the case involved serious Constitutional issues of separation of powers. The KMT’s Constitution for the ROC was never meant to be a functioning document like the US Constitution; it was merely the candy coating over an authoritarian party-state in which what counted was the Party, not the state. Hence Ma’s actions raised the spectre of the old party-state era. Many questioned whether prosecutors had the authority to wiretap Ker, also a sitting legislator. The SID also drew criticism for releasing a transcript of Wang’s conversation with Ker, once again apparently violating confidentiality to conduct trial-by-media. Indeed, it was hard to avoid the perception that Ma was using the SID as a personal tool to conduct attacks on his enemies. Ma’s use of trial-by-media in his obsessive attack also appeared to shed light on the similar tactics in the trial-by-media of former President Chen Shui-bian.

What is going on?
The fact that stands above all others is simple: this was driven by Ma Ying-jeou. It was Ma himself who decided to go after Wang and who conducted the trial by media, not bothering to stand above it all while acting through proxies to take out Wang, the usual move. Had Ma simply done nothing while making a few noises about letting the justice system take its course, there would be a smaller, more slowly-unfolding crisis, and his already-dismal popularity would not have taken a huge hit, falling to 9.2% in one poll.

Explanations abound, and none seem to satisfy.

If you want to get an idea of how complicated things are, just read Frozen Garlic’s wonderful War and Peace-length discussion. Aside from the elaborate conspiracy theories, explanations for Ma’s strange, obsessive behavior fall basically into a mixture of two camps.

1) It’s all about the legislature
Wang has spent a lifetime in the legislature and has developed an extensive network of relationships with other legislators and with powerful individuals throughout Taiwan. A Taiwanese from Kaohsiung, Wang was widely seen as the informal leader of the “southern legislators”, the group of KMT legislators and politicians from southern Taiwan who are ethnic Taiwanese and who often grumble about their share of the party and national resources and about their treatment at the hands of the post-1949 mainlander elite politicians who run the KMT.

Proponents of this view argue that Ma saw Wang as an obstacle to passage of the landmark services agreement with China, too close to opposition legislators and needlessly catering to their demands. Wang is a consensus builder, broker, and conciliator by nature. With Wang gone, his position will likely fall to his deputy, widely viewed as a fire-eater. The services agreement will likely be rammed through and the opposition’s views will be ignored.

2) It’s personal
In this view, Ma is driven by his long-time rivalry with Wang. The two have clashed several times over the years, most notably in 2005 when Wang ran for Chairmanship. At that time Lawrence Eyton, one of the sharpest observers of Taiwan affairs, wrote:

Ma was widely touted by the media as the favorite, but he was certainly a very odd favorite. When the vote took place, three quarters of the party’s legislators, many high-level party officials such as central executive committee head Chang Che-shen and more than 100 retired generals – the KMT is traditionally strong in the military – had thrown their support behind Wang.

Ma’s support came not from party insiders, but from the deeply-conservative rank and file. Party elites all supported Wang. Observers also pointed out, with no little irony that (1) it is not difficult to find KMT officials who have been actually convicted of corruption but retained their party memberships and (2) when Ma was on trial, KMT officials had reportedly attempted to get Wang to intervene with the prosecutor to squelch an appeal, who was distantly related to Wang (for that tangled story, go here).

Once again, the conflict between Ma and Wang fell out on these lines, with senior KMT officials, including Honorary Chairman for Life Lien Chan, the twice-failed Presidential candidate, criticizing Ma’s behavior. The President denied that there was “a plan to annihilate Wang” and he may well be right — he may have simply seized the opportunity.

The Ethnic Angle
One thing I’ve noticed over the years about observers living in the capital is that they tend to discount ethnic influences on political decision-making. I think they have severe trouble seeing all those friendly, well-dressed, well-educated, well-mannered KMTers with good English and a good understanding of foreigners as the colonialist they are. For myself, I’ve been in way too many institutional conflicts over the years where a struggle over some employees’s behavior or institutional resources surprise! surprise! fell out along ethnic lines within the department. The fact that you can’t put your finger concretely on the ethnic issue doesn’t mean it isn’t operating at some level.

Whether or not you believe that one of Ma’s fundamental motives was the contempt the post-1949 mainlander elites hold for Taiwanese in general and for those holding positions of power in what many right-wing, Deep Blue KMTers see as “their ROC”, the locals were quick to perceive an ethnic angle. Among Taiwanese of both the Blue and Green camps Wang is seen, somehow, as representing Taiwanese. Even pro-Greens were quick to embrace Wang as “one of us” under attack from the mainlander elites. Observers also instanced recent prosecutions of other ethnic Taiwanese in the KMT who had been removed due to corruption, arguing that these constituted a campaign.

Where do we go from here?
The nation is holding its breath waiting for the Courts to decide. With local elections due in 2014, KMT officials must be deeply nervous about Ma’s vanished popularity and the splits within the KMT. Moreover, the inability to explain Ma’s relentless attack on Wang has led many to privately voice the comment that Ma has taken leave of his senses. How Ma will address these rifts in the KMT, which have plagued his rise since he was mayor of Taipei, will be interesting to watch.

It will also be interesting to see what happens if the Court supports the KMT and boots Wang from the party. He’s 72 and will be 75 in 2016, probably too old to play spoiler in the Presidential race. Moreover, the last KMT refugee who tried to play spoiler, James Soong, got creamed in both the Taipei mayoral and Presidential elections. I suspect a deal will be worked out where Wang can run as an independent in a district in Kaohsiung unopposed by a KMT candidate, so he can get back into the legislature. Wang has been making conciliatory remarks, such as saying that Ma did not know he was attending his daughter’s wedding, that leave room for negotiation. Ma has not taken him up on this so far.

Michael Turton is the owner of the premier Taiwan related blog, The View From Taiwan.

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