TAIPEI (AFP) – Taiwan’s Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou stepped down Wednesday as chairman of the ruling party, following a massive polls defeat for the government as public fears grow over Chinese influence.
Ma resigned as head of the Kuomintang (KMT) following the party’s humiliation in local elections Saturday – seen as a key barometer ahead of the 2016 presidential race.
He bowed deeply as a sign of apology in a sombre meeting with senior party officials, televised live.
“The KMT suffered an unprecedented defeat. I apologise to the supporters as the chairman… I let everybody down,” he said.
“I must shoulder the utmost responsibility for the defeat and today I announce my resignation to the Central Standing Committee.”
Ma will retain the presidency until 2016 when he must step down after serving two terms, but observers say his influence within the party will now be severely diminished.
His resignation as chairman, however, allows the KMT to begin the difficult task of reinventing itself.
Tense relations with China have warmed since Ma was elected in 2008 on a platform of improving cross-Strait ties and reviving the slowing economy.
But public sentiment has turned against the Beijing-friendly approach as voters say trade deals have been agreed in secret and not benefited ordinary Taiwanese people.
Taiwan and China split in 1949 at the end of a civil war, but Beijing still claims the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification – by force if necessary.
The continued stagnation of the island’s economy and a string of food scandals have added to the KMT’s woes.
Ma, who had announced his imminent resignation Tuesday, urged the party to remember the “painful lesson” of the polls result.