Eric Chu takes center stage

We have certainly learned a lot about Eric Chu in the past three weeks, though since we started knowing almost nothing, we still have a lot of blanks to fill in.

In the last few days of the campaign we learned that he can be petty. In the immediate aftermath of the election, we learned that he is not shy about trumpeting modest achievements. He might also be aggressive in pursuing power, but he prefers not to be seen as doing this. In the old fawning bureaucratic-authoritarian political culture, it is inappropriate and sometimes dangerous to nakedly pursue power. You have to pretend not to want it while your supporters clamor for you to accept leadership. Only after declining power several times is it acceptable to begrudgingly accept the heavy burden of political power. Chu seems to feel comfortable in this old-style political culture rather than the more open and honest culture of most democracies.

That is relatively small potatoes. We learned an enormous amount over the weekend when Chu announced he would run for KMT party chair. Where he had been a blank sheet of paper, he suddenly took a whole set of important political positions. Among the highlights are:

He won’t run for president in 2016.

He wants a parliamentary system.

He will consider revising the electoral system.

The KMT should become an internally-organized party. He will not be a superstar or a party dictator.

He will return all the KMT’s “ill-gotten” property to the state.

The KMT has become too close to large corporations and too enthralled with free-market ideas. In cross-straits dealings, this has allowed “compradore-type 買辦型” figures and unscrupulous Taiwanese businessmen (with dealings in China) 惡性台商 to emerge.

He and President Ma have completely different personalities.

He hinted that he would drop the purge against Speaker Wang.

And I’m probably forgetting some of the other important things he said. But holy cow, that’s a lot! He is setting out a radically different vision of what the KMT should be, and he is basically repudiating 70% of President Ma’s economic strategy.

I have two main thoughts about this.

First, the proposal to adopt a parliamentary system seems extremely hurried and might not be well thought out at all. This is not a minor change. It would impact everything in the entire political system, and we haven’t even begun to think about the first-order impacts, much less the third-order impacts. Moreover, every parliamentary system is somewhat different; there isn’t a simple off-the-shelf model that you can buy at your local Carrefour. It’s one thing to ask for a parliamentary system; it’s quite another to hammer out all the little details. Who gets to have the first shot at forming a coalition government? How will confidence votes be handled? Will the president continue to be directly elected? What happens to the National Security system? If this were New Zealand, they would appoint a Royal Commission that would take a year or two to consider all aspects of the question and make various proposals. There has been discussion of adopting a German-style MMP electoral system, and the intellectual community is exploring this. At the Taiwanese Political Science Association conference last weekend, there were several papers examining how Germans see their electoral system and what kinds of problems have surfaced. We are far less prepared to give useful advice about how to design an appropriate parliamentary system. Chu is suggesting that Taiwan can figure this all out in the midst of an election year, get a bill through the legislature, and then have sufficient time to educate the public so that they can vote on it in a referendum in a mere thirteen months. It would be far better to slow things down. You can’t afford to make rash and uninformed changes to the constitution, much less to the heart of the constitution.

Frankly, I’m a little concerned that Chu doesn’t seem to have a clear vision of what he wants. Today he clarified that he would be fine with either a pure parliamentary system or a system in which the directly elected president maintained considerable political powers (such as in the French system). Wait a minute, those are two entirely different systems that operate according to entirely different political logics! Choosing between those two is not at all like raising taxes by either 2% or 3%. To give just one example, having a directly elected president with considerable powers tends to drive the parties into two big camps. In pure parliamentary systems, there are often centrist coalitions. (To my knowledge) Chu hasn’t commented on why he wants to change the system. Why does he think a parliamentary (or French-style semi-presidential) system will work better than the current semi-presidential system? Is he trying to revamp the party system? Is he concerned about lines of authority from the elected politicians to the bureaucrats? Does he think a parliamentary system will discourage corruption or promote political consensus-building? He hasn’t told us why he wants this fundamental change and he doesn’t seem to know what change he wants, so why is this his big idea? It’s almost as if he wants to look like a reformer so he has picked out the biggest damn hammer in the whole toolbox in order to make the biggest impact on his public image. I hope he’s thought this through better than it appears so far.

Second, Friday was the first day of Chu’s major league political career. Up until now, he was either in local politics or not on the front lines. Suddenly he is at the center of national politics in the brightest media spotlight. Everything he does and says will be picked apart in a way that he has never had to deal with until now. As mayor of New Taipei, he could say that he is a guy who gets things done, and the country basically let that go unchallenged. No longer. He said a lot of great sounding things on Friday, but now he will actually have to deal with the consequences of those statements. If he doesn’t do something with party property, people will ask questions. Lien Chan and Wu Po-hsiung aren’t just going to ignore his comment about “compradore-style figures.” Most importantly, Ma Ying-jeou is not just going to yield to Chu’s ideas about economic policies. Chu might complain that Ma’s policies unfairly benefit the richest people, but Ma is still in charge of the government and he doesn’t seem to want to reverse six years of economic “achievements.” The business world isn’t going to sit idly by if Chu tries to change the economic policies they want. They have lots of power within the KMT, and they will defend their interests. Chu is going to have to engage in a full-blown power struggle to force the cabinet to follow his new line. Otherwise, Chu is going to look pretty weak if he, as KMT party chair, is calling for one set of policies and President Ma continues to push ahead with his entirely different political priorities. The media will be watching intently and screaming loudly through this entire process. Chu will find that he cannot control media agenda the way he could in local politics. He will be forced to take a stand on hot topics that he would rather avoid, and he won’t be facing a group of cooperative local reporters who will give him the benefit of the doubt when he puts his foot in his mouth. Chu is a smart guy, and he apparently has guts. I’m sure he knew that he was picking a fight with the KMT power structure and that it will fight back. In addition to the brighter spotlight and the more intense power struggles, he has to face a much harder set of problems. Dealing with national security, the national economy, leading a party, and fostering a vision for the future of the country are much harder than building an MRT line or upgrading sewer lines. Chu has been building his career to play the lead role on the center stage, and we’ll see if he is ready. From now on, everything is different.

One Response to “Eric Chu takes center stage”

  1. ジェームス (@jmstwn) Says:

    Absolutely. And as Apple Daily commented yesterday, if Chu truly doesn’t run for president, the KMT will have not 2 but 3 different putative leaders in campaign season (“three suns”). It’ll be a massive challenge to coordinate all their views and know where the KMT stands if the Candidate has differences with Chu on certain issues. Tsai’s campaign will be relatively relaxing in comparison.

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