Standing on the Front Line, Responding to Public Expectations
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
May 20, 2009
President Ma Ying-jeou has been in office one year. The dominant feeling during this year has been frustration with the Ma administration for failing to live up to its potential.
President Ma's performance has fallen far short of public expectations. Two very different reasons are responsible for this, and both apply. First, President Ma erred, provoking public dissatisfaction. Secondly, on other issues, President Ma did not err. Instead, public expectations were unrealistic. In other words, some problems are due to President Ma's errors. Other problems are due to unrealistic public expectations.
President Ma Ying-jeou's main goal during the remainder of his term should be to identify the gaps between his performance and public expectations, and to fill them. If President Ma has erred, he must swiftly make amends. If the public has unrealistic expectations, he must communicate with the public and convince them otherwise. The president's performance will inevitably fall short of public expectations. But the shortfalls must be kept to a minimum.
Actually, when President Ma took office a year ago, the situation was more perious than first imagined. Taipei's relations with Beijing had reached new lows. Taipei's relations with Washington had also reached new lows. Taiwan's economic dependence on mainland China had reached new highs. The mainland's influence on Taiwan's political and economic lifeblood had also reached new highs. Cross-Strait relations had come to a head, and were ready for a showdown. Chen Shui-bian and the DPP had milked the national identity issue and "ethnic" relations issue for all they were worth. The Chen corruption case had devastated the system of legal justice and social justice beyond repair. Problems plagued the nation, inside and out. Add to this a global financial tsunami that occurs only once in a century. Faced with such perilous circumstances, what kind of president did Ma Ying-jeou aspire to be? What did the public expect Ma Ying-jeou to do? This is where the gap appeared.
What kind of President did Ma Ying-jeou aspire to be? The Chen Shui-bian regime was fierce, tyrannical, and reckless. By contrast, Ma Ying-jeou was none of these things. He believed that people in political office must be upright, that integrity must be foremost. Chen Shui-bian was willing "to do whatever it takes." Ma Ying-jeou, by contrast, imposes limits upon himself. For example, Ma Ying-jeou declared that he was "retreating to the second line." The result was Liu Chao-hsuan became the most respected Premier in the past two decades. Ma never humiliated Vincent Siew the way Liu Tai-ying and Su Chi-cheng did. Ma never abused Premiers the way Chen Shui-bian did. Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian, in order to demagogue cross-Strait relations and Taipei-Washington relations, resorted to posturing and provoking external crises, to be used as political bargaining chips. Chen Shui-bian was fierce, tyrannical, and reckless to the extreme. During his "lost voyage" he ordered Air Force One flown to Libya as a gesture of protest. Ma Ying-jeou's policy was to transit on the west coast of the US, coming and going. Some suggested that he transit on the east coast, but he ignored such suggestions, saying he wanted to "keep things simple." Even Jason Hu felt Ma's style was "too bland." How does one explain Ma's style anyway?
What kind of president does the public expect Ma Ying-jeou to be? When Ma Ying-jeou said he was "retreating to the second line," the public subjected him to overwhelming criticism and ridicule. The public felt that the separation of powers between the president and the premier was something they needed to settle between themselves. But as the president, as the spiritual and political leader of the nation Ma had a responsibility to stand on the front line. Ma said "Chen Yunlin can address me as Mr. Ma," "Taiwan and mainland China are two regions," and "If re-elected I would not rule out political talks." President Ma probably felt he was merely stating some simple facts. But he really should have known his statement would provoke jibes about "Regional Administrator Ma." The public wonders how Ma can be so oblivious to the impact of his remarks. Chen Tsung-ming has refused to step down. The pre-trial investigation and the Chen corruption case have not progressed as the public hoped they would. Many people consider this President Ma's responsibility. Yet Ma's only response has been to say, "I respect the independence of the judiciary." Cross-Strait policy involves walking a tightrope. Some accuse him of "sympathizing with [Mainland] China, and selling out Taiwan." Others accuse him of promoting an "independent Taiwan and the two-states theory." As we can see, the public has sharply divergent expectations of Ma Ying-jeou.
Ma Ying-jeou got elected on the basis of his "Better Immediately!" campaign slogan. The subsequent gap between public expectations was of course, huge. Also, many factors, such as the rise and fall of cross-Strait relations were not under his control. The financial tsunami made matters worse. The Chen corruption case dragged on, making many people impatient. Faced with criticism from within and without, many members of the public almost hoped that Ma Ying-jeou would display a few "fierce, tyrannical, and reckless" traits. Instead, Ma Ying-jeou's forebearance was interpreted as weakness and incompetence. In fact Ma Ying-jeou could easily say the words or make the gestures needed to win over populist sentiment. So how did he get to be labeled as "weak and incompetent?" Is this the result of a gap in public expectations? Or is Ma Ying-jeou a person who simply will not live up to his potential?
What does Ma Ying-jeou expect of himself as a president? What does the public on Taiwan expect of him as a president? For the answers to these two questions, and to bridge the gap between public expectations and Ma's performance, we need to answer an even more fundamental question: Given the Republic of China's internal and external circumstances, what kind of leader does it need?
President Ma must stand on the front line. No matter what the separation of powers between the President and Premier might be, no matter how the party and government might interface, President Ma has symbolic and political responsibility to stand on the front line. He must stand on the front line. But Taiwan cannot endure another populist president who lives by demagoguery. Externally, he must persuade Beijing to maintain a win-win relationship. Internally, he must persuade Taiwan independence elements to see the error of their ways, and heal society's wounds. The president has taken a position on the front lines. He must be patient on the international front and forgiving on the domestic front. The president is standing on the front line, taking the point. It would be an easy matter for him to make a show of being a powerful leader, fierce, tyrannical, and reckless. But standing on the front line, taking the point, he must bite his tongue, he must make concessions. he must avoid doing the things he shouldn't do. That may well be beyond the abilities of ordinary mortals. To what extent must he remain silent? To what extent must he make concessions? How can he do what must be done, and refuse to do what must not be done? How can he avoid accusations that he has not lived up to his potential.
The public is frustrated with the Ma administration for not living up to its potential. The potential the public expects it to live up to may not be all that great. Ma Ying-jeou's own expectations may be simple and transparent. The problem is understanding our situation inside and out. What kind of potential should national leaders fulfill? Only after we have answered this question, can we fill the gap between public expectations and the president's performance.
2009.05.20 05:46 am