Editorial: Trinities don’t work in politics

Concentration of power in the hands of one person is never looked upon kindly in a modern democracy, just like staying in power for too long.

In order to restrict the second practice, many countries introduced term limits. The United States wants its presidents to stay on for eight years at the maximum. Some Latin American countries, looking back at a history of powerful military dictators, sometimes just think one term in power is enough.

When introducing direct presidential elections in 1996, Taiwan followed the US example for both presidents and local mayors and county magistrates. Four years in one term, two consecutive terms as the maximum. This formula has never been contested, showing Taiwan’s political maturity.

The picture is different when it comes to combining political positions. Presidents have traditionally also concurrently held the position of party chairman, and even the first opposition candidate to be elected president, Chen Shui-bian, soon found that it was more efficient if he served as chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party at the same time.

Since the combination was already normal for the Kuomintang, President Ma Ying-jeou saw no qualms in applying the practice as well, even if not immediately after winning power.

Combining two functions might be one thing, but three is a crowd. A trinity might be appreciated in a world religion, but in Taiwanese politics, that might be another thing altogether.

Since the KMT replaced Legislative Vice Speaker Hung Hsiu-chu with Eric Liluan Chu as its presidential candidate on October 17, a clamor has erupted calling on the new contender to give up at least one of his jobs.

In addition to having become a presidential candidate, Chu has also been the chairman of the KMT since early this year, and the mayor of New Taipei City, Taiwan’s most populous city, since 2010.

It’s the last of the three positions that is giving rise to all the public ire and indignation.

One could say that being a candidate is not really a job, more like a job application or a curriculum vitae. However, leading a political party, especially one of the size of the KMT, might already be seen as a full-time occupation, but the heaviest of the three is governing a city of more than 3 million inhabitants.

Chu has tried to evade the issue by “taking leave” from his position as mayor for three months, leaving one of his deputies as an acting mayor. Few people in normal working life have the opportunity of just “taking leave” for three months.

Chu’s own statements have been at the origin of the uproar. When he ran for re-election as mayor last year, he persuaded residents he would sit out his term and not run off to join the race for the January 16, 2016 presidential election.

After he won re-election on November 29 – by a far thinner margin than originally predicted – he soon went on to run for KMT chairman, repeating the claims that he would not run for president, despite the fact that it was already becoming clear that the previous frontrunners had been deflated. Former Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-bin, Vice President Wu Den-yih, even Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng saw their image losing ground in the wake of the local election landslide against the KMT. Only six mayors and magistrate survived the bloodbath, including Chu, which immediately propelled DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen to the front of the presidential candidates.

So even though Chu soon looked like the only survivor of the electoral massacre, he still went on to say he would not run for president, thus leaving New Taipei City residents and KMT members with the impression that as a responsible politician, he would not leave them.

The long and arduous selection process to find a presidential candidate resulted in the surprise emergence of Hung, who, as some observers expected, failed to make enough impact on voters. As her poll ratings headed below 15 percent, the KMT decided to try and turn the situation around by recruiting the person who had been seen as the only possible candidate right from the start, Chu.

Many observers saw his entering the race as a stratagem to save as many seats in the Legislative Yuan as possible, because the DPP is believed to be able to win its first majority at Taiwan’s parliament. Chu’s popularity would be more effective in helping KMT lawmakers win seats than Hung ever was, the story goes.

However, Chu’s refusal to give up his mayoral position is giving rise to a wave of antagonism the candidate does not need.

He is facing problems on several fronts. As a protest against his staying on as mayor, various local politicians have launched campaigns to recall or impeach him. While these actions will need a significant amount of time and signatories to get off the ground, DPP lawmaker Chen Ting-fei and Taiwan Solidarity Union legislator Chou Ni-an have filed a suit with the Supreme Prosecutors Office Special Investigation Division, the body which gained prominence for its investigations into corruption in the final years of the Chen Shui-bian administration.

The SID interviewed him twice in the space of just one day Wednesday, but while the investigation deals with allegations that Hung received benefits in return for allowing herself to be dropped out of the race, it is still one more minus point for Chu’s image.

People First Party chairman and presidential candidate James Soong even joked that the KMT might soon have to replace its candidate again if Chu’s problems persisted. The DPP’s insistence that a live debate only be put on the table once the candidates have officially registered with the Central Election Commission, expresses the same feeling.

Chu can subdue a significant part of the uproar by taking a clear stance: either stay in New Taipei City or run flat out for president.

Voters will appreciate the effort, so he might even recover from the less-than-impressive poll ratings he has been receiving. In New Taipei City, a full 66 percent of residents want him to resign as mayor, a survey by cable station TVBS found recently.

The message is clear: either Chu keeps his finger in all the pies, failing to win credibility as a presidential candidate, or he makes a clear choice for the position he really wants. Such a choice will either tell the public that he really intends to win the presidential election, or guarantee the right of New Taipei citizens to a mayor who has their full attention. The third angle of the triumvirate, the leadership of the KMT, will be decided by the outcome of the January 16 election.

(Photo credit: Eric Liluan Chu Facebook fan page)
(Photo credit: Eric Liluan Chu Facebook fan page)
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