One of the more controversial changes to the Kuomintang (KMT) party charter – introduced by President Ma Jing-yeou and passed at the party congress in November 2013 – ensures that an elected KMT-president will automatically assume the position of Chair of the party. Delegates supporting and opposing the measure acknowledge that the change will enhance unity in the party; they differ primarily on whether that is a good thing. The question may have taken on added urgency with President Ma’s tumbling approval ratings following his reelection as party chair in July 2013. What is at stake here? In the long-term, the measure affects two outcomes: the president’s influence on the party and party members’ legislative independence. In the short-term, supporters and opponents may be quibbling over the president’s legacy versus legislators’ tenure.
For the executive, the measure narrows the gap between the presidency and party members in the legislature in the semi-presidential system in Taiwan. In particular, if the KMT wins the presidency in elections, the new president-elect will take over as chair of the party, which brings with it the legislative support – at least in theory – of the KMT members in the legislature. One outcome is better synchronization of the policy agendas of the executive and the party. The immediate stakes is that current party chair, President Ma, will cut short by 18 months his term as chair to make way for the new president-elect should that take place. The trade-off may be that, as chair, Ma will have some influence on the party’s presidential nominee and the election platform.
For the party’s legislative members, the measure similarly narrows the gap between the presidency and party members in the legislature. For party members, this means that their legislative independence may be reduced. However, there may be trade-off in the form of longer office-tenure. In particular, a popular president-elect is likely to bring coattail effects for party members into the legislature.
But, in the short-term, the stakes are affected by two additional circumstances: first, President Ma’s perceived lack of consultation with party members over matters that affect the party, such as in his ousting of Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng; second, the upcoming the 7-in-1 elections in 2014, followed by the 2016 legislative and presidential elections.
In the near-term, the concern for KMT legislators, then, is not limited to party accord: there may be possible negative coattail effects that affect their legislative tenure. Specifically, the executive-as-partychair ties the electoral fortunes of party members to the president’s popularity, or lack thereof, while reducing the possibility of recovery from missteps or misfortunes. Opponents of the measure alluded to the problem: Ma continues on as chair even if the party suffers electoral defeats at the local elections and the 2016 national elections.
It may bear reminding that Taiwan is an emergent democracy with weak partisanship. To the extent that political party institutionalization is a key pillar of democratic development, this measure in the KMT takes a step towards party consolidation, although it may increase uncertainty of election outcomes.