Ma Ying-jeou: Do Not Allow Talk of "Retreating to the Second Line" Bind You Hand and Feet
China Times Editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
June 26, 2008
President Ma's comment that he has "retreated to the second line" has provoked considerable debate. What exactly is "retreating to the second line?" Have Ma's actions this past month been appropriate for a democratically elected president, as defined by the constitution? Put more simply, when Ma asks his financial and economic advisors "Why is the stock market falling without end?" are such expressions of concern consistent with "retreating to the second line?"
As everyone knows the stock market has fallen relentlessly ever since Ma assumed office. Investor losses can only be described as appalling. "Why is the stock market falling without end? is a question everyone ought to be asking. The only person who shouldn't be asking the question, at least not in public, is President Ma. After all, he is the one should be providing us with the answers. Although Ma has been in office for a full month, he has no idea why the stock market is falling without end. Yet he persists in commenting on matters that are none of his concern, such as whether rural primary schools should be eliminated, and whether Chuang Kuo-rong should keep his teaching post. Is this really the way to "retreat to the second line?"
True, President Ma is under the spotlight and in the hotseat. The slightest misstatement or misstep will invite a barrage of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" criticisms. But like it or not, President Ma must acknowledge a harsh reality. The people may support a president who respects his constitutional mandate. After all, Ma Ying-jeou received over 7 million votes. But they will not support a president who sticks his nose into matters that are none of his business, especially when he is still clueless about affairs of state one month after assuming office.
The past eight years of DPP misrule have provided the Republic of China with a valuable object lesson in how not to govern a nation. The KMT's return to power after a second change in ruling parties is providing the nation with another kind of lesson in constitutional rule. The key question is how will President Ma and the KMT define their roles during this process. Only a few comparisons are required to show how different the current political environment is from the past past eight years. During the eight years the DPP has been in power, a president elected by a plurality has presided over a minority government. Former President Chen never gave a damn about constitutional restraints on his power. He openly demeaned the constitution openly, in public. He expanded his powers without limit. He used and abused a string of Premiers. Outside observers concluded he was attempting to create an Imperial Presidency. Even more troublesome to Chen Shui-bian and the DPP was the opposition dominated legislature. Chen Shui-bian and the DPP were never willing to compromise or engage in dialogue. Instead they incited populist mob sentiment and butted heads with the opposition. The results were predictable. Eight years in office and nothing to show in the way of accomplishments. Its sole legacy? A negative example of how not to govern a nation.
Today's political landscape is the diametric opposite of what it was over the past eight years. We now have a majority President, and a ruling party that commands a supermajority in the legislature. Such an natural advantage gives President Ma an opportunity to realize his constitutional ideals. Ma Ying-jeou naturally cares more about the constitution than Chen Shui-bian. To him the constitution specifies a dual-leadership system. Therefore he does not want to encroach upon the powers of the Premier. Hence his declaration that he was "retreating to the second line."
Even more coincidentally, after Ma stepped down from the position of party chairman after being indicted by the Special Prosecutor in the Discretionary Fund case, Ma Ying-jeou had no intention of resuming his former role as party chairman. This has led to a situation never before seen under the old KMT: the sitting President is not simultaneously the Chairman of the KMT. This arrangement could be interpreted as Ma Ying-jeou's desire to be a "President to All the People." But this has already had immediate repercussions. The first is the president can no longer use the party machinery to mediate between competing departments. The second is that the party machinery tends to become a second arena in the struggle for power. To wit, recent speculation about whether Wang Jin-pyng, Chu Li-lun, or Wu Dun-yi will be the next party chairman.
President Ma has imposed "limits on himself" regarding relations between the Presidential Office and the Executive Yuan. He has also "totally severed" relations between the Presidential Offic and the KMT. The result has been what we have seen over the past month. A cabinet consisting entirely of career civil servants and academics, confronted by a barrage of issues in the legislature, and local authorities fighting tooth and nail over resources, finds itself at a complete loss about what to do next. Conversely, the KMT legislative caucus is using the opportunity to expand its power. Ma nearly lost control over the Diaoyutai Islands ramming incident. He even hoped to personally participate in cross-strait talks. Nominees for the Examination Yuan and the Control Yuan floated rumors and made threats. The result was every time President Ma came forward, the situation descended into chaos.
If the above phenomena, become the norm, one can safely predict that under President Ma the executive branch will become weaker and weaker. The legislative branch, given President Ma's forbearance, will become more and more presumptuous. The result will the undermining of President Ma's authority and leadership, and something akin to the Democratic Progressive Party's total loss of control. If this happens, President Ma's ratings will plummet a second time. Fortunately it is only one month into his term. He still has a chance to make changes. Having controversial issues come to a head earlier rather than later is not necessarily a bad thing. What matters is how President Ma uses his presidential mandate to define his role. That role has to be more than "retreating to the second line."