Why does the KMT want to bring down the President? Well, part of it, of course, is that the KMT just plain hates Chen Shui-bian for beating them twice and destroying the arrangement they had made with China prior to the 2004 election. But part of it also is relates to a combination of structural features of Taiwan’s government and politics.

Flip the Taiwan government over on its back and brush away the tentacles. Is it a parliamentary or a Presidential system? Sexing the Taiwan government is no easy task, and yet answering that question has been one of the most urgent drivers of politics on the island for the better part of two decades.

In the early 1990s, after Lee Teng-hui became President in the wake of Chiang Ching-kuo’s death, a power struggle within the KMT began over what kind of government Taiwan was going to have, a Presidential or Parliamentary system. President Lee, being President, fought for a Presidential system, while the KMT old guard, led by then-Premier Hau Pei-tsun, argued that Taiwan had a parliamentary system in which the government was run by the Premier, who was responsible to the legislature. This struggle over the nature of Taiwan’s government is still going on today.

Under the Constitution the Premier was appointed by the President but confirmed by the legislature (as David reminded me in the comments below, it was Lee who did away with the confirmation and made the Premier solely the President’s perogative). One reform the Old Guard KMT thus put forward was to make the Premier appointed out of the legislature, doing an end run around Presidential authority. Then-President Lee would have none of it. Lee shoved through several Constitutional changes during his tenure as President which were aimed at strengthening the Presidency. In the end Hau lost his bid, and in the 1996 Presidential election, ran for the Presidency on a futile third-party ticket against Lee and DPP challenger Peng Ming-min.

One of the key changes that Lee made was to make the Presidency a position directly elected by the people. He did this to prevent Hau from capturing the Presidency, though such a reform had long been goal of local democracy activists. Previously the Presidency had been elected by a “representative” body, the National Assembly, ostensibly elected by the people, but controlled by the ruling party. This mean that Party insiders controlled who would become President. Lee adumbrated their power by taking his position to the people.

A directly elected President who also appoints the Premier and the cabinet positions gives the President considerable authority over the operations of government. It also presents a problem for the KMT.

Recall that the KMT’s real power is at the local level. By contrast, the DPP’s real power is at the national level; it is still struggling to evolve a local-level apparatus. This means that in the national-level Presidential elections, the DPP has a solid structural advantage over the KMT — the populace does not want to be part of China, and will tend to support the DPP candidate over the KMT candidate, all other things being equal. By the same token, in the local-level legislative elections, the KMT, with its control of the local level government organizations, good relations with organized crime, and longstanding links to local business and political families, the KMT has a profound structural advantage, all other things being equal. These structural features do not mean that the DPP cannot capture legislative seats (it was the single largest party in the legislature after the 2003 elections) or that the KMT cannot capture the Presidency, but they are one of the things that would-be winners must overcome.

If the KMT can make the Premier a position named by the legislature rather than by the President, and weaken the Presidency, it can negate the advantages the DPP enjoys in the national level election, and isolate and weaken the Presidency. Because the KMT-led Blue alliance will no doubt retain control of the legislature for some time to come, it will ensure that its man is always named premier. That is why regardless of who is President, and regardless of what the situation is, there will always be a tendency for the KMT to attack the office of the President. As long as the position is directly elected, it represents a threat to KMT control of the island. Thus KMT policy will always be to make the government a parliamentary system and make the Presidency a purely ceremonial position.

If Ma is elected President, look for the Party Machine to demand that one of its members, probably Wang Jyn-ping, currently Speaker of the Legislature, become Premier, and look for Ma to resist. Because one way the Party Machine can isolate Ma is to make him President and then hand the real power over to the Premier through “reform” of the Constitution. Hence, while the vitriol of the attacks on the Presidency may abate during Ma’s tenure, the struggle will go on.

UPDATED in response to David’s comments below.