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  • Writer's pictureThomas Liu

KMT’s Bid for Control of Taiwan Foundation for Democracy: A Test to Han’s Leadership

By Thomas Liu and Milo Hsieh

After the Kuomintang party (KMT) won a legislative plurality during Taiwan’s January election, the KMT has been eager to test the extent of its newfound political influence, after long having been sidelined from national level policymaking since 2016. With the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) abstaining during the Legislative Yuan vote for speakership, Han Kuo Yu, KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate was elected as speaker on February 1, 2024, officiating his return to the top of Taiwan politics.

Han’s leadership now faces a challenge as he struggles to appoint a preferred candidate of his party to run the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, an organization not unlike other international aid agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). It was founded in 2003 to assist the Taiwan government to promote democracy and human rights ideologies domestically and abroad. Then, the Foundation appointed Legislative Yuan speaker Wang Jyn-Ping (王金平) as its first chairman, creating a precedent in which the Legislative Yuan speaker would serve as the TFD chair ex-officio.

The agency hosts several forums, events, and awards, playing an important part of Taiwan’s soft power. It gives out grants to political parties and NGOs for events and actions relating to democracy, foreign affairs, or human rights. Its mission has drawn attention from China, with the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office claiming in 2022 that the Foundation is a “stubborn supporter” of Taiwan independence.

Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (Source: TFD Facebook)

With Han Kuo-Yu now Legislative Yuan speaker, he is now amongst the three Taiwan government representatives on the foundation’s board, alongside Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) and Secretary-General to the President Lin Chia-Lung (林佳龍). Although this would have presented no major issues during the years in which a political party holds both the presidency and the legislative majority, that is not the case today. The differing interests between Han and the two DPP presidential appointees are becoming increasingly apparent as the Taiwan government moves to a state of cohabitation.

The TFD must also appoint half of its board’s seats in accordance with the distribution of each parties’ seat in the LY. However, an earlier post on the website of the Foundation shows the proportion of these seats between parties to be five DPP representatives, to KMT’s four, to and TPP’s one seat, sparking outbursts as KMT argues that it should hold a plurality to mirror its legislative plurality. While former DPP legislator Lo Chih-Cheng (羅致政) was then quickly removed from the list in response, the KMT claims that this is a part of an effort to undermine Han’s position as TFD Chair.

In addition, TFD also has academic, finance, and NGO representatives on its board. Though nominally non-partisan, KMT Legislator Wang Hong Wei (王鴻薇) claimed that each appear to have pro-DPP backgrounds. If true, this would mean that for the upcoming board meeting on April 10, the DPP will effectively control nine seats, in contrast to KMT’s five and TPP’s one seat.

The TFD’s list of board members (source: TFD website)

Without a clear majority or plurality in the TFD board, Han’s only argument to appoint himself chair thus lay not in structural guarantees, but mere political precedents, which the DPP may attempt to break from by vetoing Han’s Chairmanship. While DPP Legislative Caucus Whip Ker Chien-Ming (柯建銘) assured that there’s “no such” consideration, former KMT legislator Charles Chen (陳以信) warned that breaking the practice would be a damage to Taiwan’s democracy. 

According to KMT Legislator Hong-Wei Wang (王鴻薇), Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said to Han on a visit in February that the DPP is willing to honor long standing precedent and allow Han to become TFD Chair, on the condition that DPP gets to nominate their candidate for TFD president. 

In response, Han’s office announced that they plan to nominate a academic known for his support of the KMT for TFD president, National Chengchi University (NCCU) Professor Yeh-Chung Lu (盧業中). In addition, reports suggest that Han may refuse the office of TFD Chairman as a gesture of protest. 

DPP is allegedly concerned about Lu’s connection to the KMT prior to the January 2024 election. Lu served as a foreign policy advisor to the KMT presidential candidate Hou You-Ih’s (侯友宜) presidential campaign. DPP Legislative Yuan Whip Ker, in a statement to the press, said that past TFD Presidents have always been “someone who is nominated by the president and whose interests align with that of the country’s.” This is likely said with an intent to imply that Lu’s interests would be misaligned with DPP-led Executive Yuan if nominated. Current TFD President and former DPP official Huang Yu-Lin (黃玉霖) also issued a statement saying that the nomination process “should return the course of party cooperation and dealt with on the traditions and precedents of democratic negotiation.” In response to both statements, Lu said during a radio interview that he was “raised in the ROC, by Taiwanese water and rice, and doesn’t believe that [he] is not one with the country.”

In an interview with Safe Spaces Policy Analyst Thomas Liu, NCCU Professor Huang Kwei-Bo (黃奎博) pointed out that the practices of Legislative Yuan President as TFD chairman have been going on for 20 years. Huang told us that “precedents can be maintained but are also susceptible to change, yet the DPP’s 'special characteristics’ usually means that they have a stronger resolve to reach its goals.” As for the appointment of TFD president, “there are no specific precedents,” Huang added “both TFD chairman and ruling government have appointed TFD presidents before on the others’ agreement.” According to Huang, in 2008 Wang Jyn Ping decided to use his power as chairman to keep Lin Wen Cheng (林文程) as president of TFD, despite the election of KMT President Ma Ying-Jeou (馬英九), which Huang believes to set a precedent in which the Legislative Yuan’s decision on the matter is valued over that of the Executive Yuan’s opinion.

According to its charter, the TFD is to hold a board meeting within three months following a change of board chair. As former Legislative Yuan President You Si-Kun (游錫堃) resigned as TFD Chair on February 1, the TFD has until May 1 to meet. Currently, the board plans to meet on April 10. With the TFD’s charter being clear that its president must be nominated by its chairman, unwritten political precedents are constraining the ability of both parties to fully take control of the organization. 

Current struggle between the two parties over the TFD presidency is a direct result of the January 2024 election, in which the people of Taiwan voted in a plurality for a DPP president, and for a KMT plurality in the Legislative Yuan. With neither attaining a clear majority nor a clear popular mandate, each party is motivated to maintain an image of cooperation, nonpartisanship, and respect for political precedents.However, the reality is likely anything but. With the DPP set to represent the Taiwan government for the next four years under a minority government in a streak longer than any party has since the democratization of Taiwan, all parties will be attempting to rewrite political precedents in their favor. 

With Han’s speakership facing the first major challenge to its authority just a month after his inauguration, the struggle over control of the TFD will likely not be the first of its kind in the years to come. Will the KMT take a confrontational approach, which would likely rely on the support of the TPP’s “critical minority,” or will it take a conciliatory approach? The results of the April 10th TFD meeting will likely provide clues as to the answer of this question.

This article was previously published on CommonWealth Magazine on April 06, 2024.


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