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Ma Ying-jeou aims to unleash KMT Borg

Superficially Ma backing Ko's polling only option is about winning, but there is more to it

Ma Ying-jeou aims to unleash KMT Borg

(CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — Former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) stunned everyone last Friday (Nov. 10) when he sent his spokesperson, Ma Ying-jeou Foundation Director Hsiao Hsu-tsen (蕭旭岑), to announce that he supported the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) plan for an opinion poll only solution to determine who would be the presidential and vice presidential candidates on a unity opposition ticket.

Kuomintang (KMT) Taipei City Councillor Yu Shu-hui (游淑慧), who was standing next to KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) when he got the news that the most powerful KMT party elder had backed his rival’s plan, described his reaction as if he had come under a “sudden attack” and that she and Hou’s supporters felt pity for him.

In the last column we examined how this came about, but over the last two days, Ma has moved the needle on the negotiations. On Wednesday (Nov. 15) morning at 10 a.m. Hou, Ko, KMT Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫) and at the request of Ko, Ma will also join as a witness to a joint negotiation meeting.

While some KMT politicians expressed their support publicly, including influential party elder, former KMT presidential candidate and Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), what was more telling was the almost complete absence of any opposition to the plan, though eventually another party elder, former speaker of the legislature Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), did urge Hou to think it over carefully.

Outmaneuvered by Ma and under intense pressure from the party to forge a winning unity ticket, Chu and Hou have both now agreed to opinion polling only selection, but with two catches that benefit Hou. They are now promoting a “64” plan, where 60% is determined by polling of the two candidates in Ko-Hou and Hou-Ko tickets against a hypothetical Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ticket of Lai Ching-te (賴清德) and current representative to the U.S. Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), and 40% determined by popularity of their respective political parties and polled by pan-blue or polling outlets like Formosa that have consistently shown Hou ahead of Ko.

Ko has consistently stood his ground on using opinion polling solely based on the candidate as both main parties have used in the past to settle primaries. This favors him somewhat, but theoretically, he could still lose this.

Looming deadlines and potential deadlock

The KMT has only put forth plans that strongly favor Hou. Storm Media quotes a “blue camp insider” as saying that Hou long ago decided he absolutely would not accept anything other than being the presidential candidate at the top of the ticket. While it is impossible to confirm the veracity of that unnamed source, it does strongly correlate to Hou and Chu’s attitude and behavior toward negotiations so far.

With time running out before the Nov. 20 to 24 deadline to register presidential tickets, the Wednesday morning meeting may be the make-or-break moment. There are still some hurdles to overcome, including the format of the polls, the polling outfits to be used, the polling wording, and which party would be the one to register the ticket.

There are strong strategic reasons to back a unity poll and strong reasons both sides should not. On the plus side, polling has consistently shown that a unity ticket with either Hou or Ko as the presidential candidate outpolls a Lai-Hsiao ticket.

On the negative side, the TPP especially runs the risk of diluting their still nascent independent party identity. There is also the question of subsidies, both parties desperately need cash and there is a subsidy of NT$30 per vote, assuming the candidate can garner at least one-third as many votes as the eventual winner.

If the negotiations prove successful, Ma will rightfully get a lot of the credit for making it happen. He has successfully gotten Chu and Hou to buckle and get within the ballpark of a deal, even if it does not work out in the end.

However, the burning question is why did Ma do this? He has undermined the leadership of his own party and thrown his support behind the chair of the TPP. This is not normal behavior for someone who has devoted their life to the KMT.

Of course, wanting to form a winning ticket to defeat the DPP is a significant reason. But Ko’s proposal has been on the table for a while now, Ma has been out campaigning with Hou and Chu, and yet Ma sent out an emissary to announce his abrupt conversion to Ko’s stance.

His emissary Hsiao was given the cold shoulder by the Hou camp when he went to inform them of Ma’s decision and complained they were informed after the fact in spite of having turned him away in the first place. Hsiao complained that his messages to Hou’s campaign manager King Pu-tsung (金溥聰 aka “the knife”) were marked as "read" but all went unanswered.

That Ma used an emissary could be an indication he did not want the awkward situation of informing them personally. Equally possible is that there is a lot of political signaling going on and that it was a series of strategic calculations that convinced Ma to make his move. Intriguingly, the story of how it came about, and some of the comments made by Hsiao hint at what may be going on under the surface.

Multiple outlets have reported that it was not Ma’s idea to begin with. A few days prior to the announcement last Friday, Ma’s first premier during his presidency Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) visited him to present this idea.

Both Ma and Liu are first-generation 49er immigrants whose families fled the Chinese Civil War, with Liu born in China and Ma said to have been born in Hong Kong en route to Taiwan. Both are very much part of the 49er elite that has traditionally dominated the upper echelons of the KMT.

Compelling case

Liu, according to the media reports, made a compelling case. It is possible that Liu approached Ma entirely representing only himself, but it would not be surprising if he was serving as an emissary for a group of KMT elites who had discussed this amongst themselves.

It is very likely, using his high elite status, his own loyalists, proteges, and connections, but low public profile, Liu would have been able to canvas key KMT figures to determine if there was support in the party, and accept their silence on his inquiries. It is not inconceivable that this was all Ma’s idea to begin with, and Liu helped Ma pull it together quietly.

Either way, it appears that there is some signaling going on by disclosing his role in this to the press, probably to the broader elite class in the party. Signaling that this was not Ma’s idea is an important signal by itself and helps shield him somewhat from being viewed as coming up with the idea to undermine the current KMT leadership.

When Hsiao went on the radio talk show to explain Ma’s thinking, he revealed some of the strategies behind it and hinted at others. It also totally, by implication, trashed the leadership of KMT Chair Chu and the Hou campaign.

Some of this thinking is fairly straightforward. Hsiao said of Ma’s thinking, “Without Ko Wen-je there is no winning ... in the legislative elections, if Ko isn’t standing with them on the stage, they’ll be even more pitiable” but perhaps most telling from the KMT’s perspective “without mainstream voters there is no future.”

Mainstream and younger voters

Winning back mainstream voters was a big theme, and Hsiao repeatedly emphasized this point and implied that without Ko, society would not feel that the KMT was accepting mainstream opinion. He underscored the need to get pan-blue voters to “return to the squad.” He said that Ma was questioning the party’s vigor, and that after years of DPP rule the KMT was being “hollowed out” and that had led to the TPP growing large.

He added that conversely, if the two parties unite to win power, due to the lack of qualified party members in the TPP, much of the governing authority would be given to the KMT. This is true, Ko has said as much in the past.

Intriguingly, he also commented that after meeting with Hsiao Bi-khim in the U.S. recently, Ma was convinced that her political capabilities and vigorous energy were “entirely strong” and that she would strongly appeal to younger voters and put more pressure on the KMT. This is not the only time such comments have been attributed to Ma, it is clear that Ma fears Hsiao more than anyone in the DPP.

She is indeed a smart, capable, and dynamic person who has been highly successful in representing Taiwan in Washington. Ma is probably right about her joining the election, Mirror Media is reporting that following the upcoming APEC summit she will return to Taiwan, formally join the ticket as vice presidential candidate on Nov. 20, and kick off her campaign at the opening of a campaign office in Hualien.

Hsiao Hsu-tsen also said the KMT could not continue trying to draw benefits in the “stratosphere” and that the party needs to get support from the youth in order to have a future. He also said about confidence in Hou to win, that it was hoped that Hou would take this advice.

It is clear that Ma thinks that the KMT has lost the support of mainstream voters, and thinks linking up with the TPP will help win them back. He also clearly expects that this will help win back voters under 40, who have almost entirely abandoned the KMT but strongly support the TPP.

By implication, he is pinning the blame for this on Eric Chu’s leadership, though that is disingenuous. The loss of support of younger and more mainstream voters began under Ma’s leadership, especially during his second term as president.

Eric Chu has also worked very hard to win back younger voters and changed the rules in the primaries during the local elections last year to favor younger candidates. Polling suggests he has improved support for the party among younger voters somewhat, though not even close to the support levels the party once had.

Ma's model

In recent days, People’s First Party (PFP) founder and Chair James Soong (宋楚瑜) has been telling anyone who will listen that one of the big reasons he lost the 2000 election was because of “fake polls” created by the KMT and that until now the KMT “has not changed.” Is Soong correct in his allegations?

Ma Ying-jeou aims to unleash KMT Borg

As far as I know, there is no proof of this, but Soong had been a powerful figure in the KMT until only a few months before the election, so he would have been familiar with how the party operated internally. Passed over as the party’s presidential nominee, he bolted the party to run as an independent. He narrowly lost the election to the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

By the 2004 election, he had founded the PFP and it had gone on to be an even bigger force than the TPP is today, with 46 legislative seats compared to the 68 the KMT held after the 2001 election (though the legislature was larger at the time with 225 seats, today the TPP has five out of 113). He joined an opposition unity ticket as the vice presidential candidate that year with the KMT’s Lien Chan (連戰) heading the ticket.

Hidden in Hsiao’s comments about winning back mainstream and younger voters is the implication that they will be absorbed into the KMT from the TPP. After the 2004 election, Ma Ying-jeou took over as KMT party chair in 2005.

Like the Borg, Ma’s KMT cannibalized the PFP, leaving it today a mere husk of the thriving party that it once was. The PFP had become too reliant on its larger-than-life leader and by joining hands with the KMT lost much of its separate identity. Sound familiar?

The larger and better financed KMT, with its deeper bench of talent overwhelmed the PFP, and over time the PFP’s politicians one by one joined (in many cases re-joined) the KMT. It was simply a better bet for their careers.

Ma, having orchestrated much of the absorption of the PFP, no doubt has this in mind for the TPP.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report ( and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. For more columns by the author, click here. Follow him on X (prev. Twitter): @donovan_smith.