To Win Back Hearts and Minds, Confront the Cause of Defeat
China Times News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
December 8, 2009
By now just about everyone has held forth on the results of the just concluded County and Municipal Elections. Regardless of what their conclusions might be, there is one fact no one can deny. The election results show the KMT being put to a severe test. By contrast, the DPP is gradually turning the corner. Voters have used their ballots to issue the KMT a little warning, and to offer the DPP a little encouragement. This means the KMT's situation has not deteriorated to where it should be utterly despondent, and the DPP's situation has not improved to where it should break out the champagne. This was merely a mid-term exam. The finals are yet to come!
As President Ma himself concedes, the KMT, including himself, need to engage in "self-examination." But what is it they need to examine? Forget such weasel words as "an unfavorable political climate." Forget such technical quibbles as "an inappropriate nomination strategy." Those who lose elections should never offer excuses for why they lost. If you lost, you lost. If you are willing to admit, "We didn't do a very good job," then you must find out exactly what you did wrong. If all one does following an election is demand that the campaign committee hold a post-mortem and issue a report based on 20/20 hindsight, followed by "business as usual," then all we can say is the voters have given you fair warning, but apparently their warning wasn't painful enough.
Those attuned to public opinion know one must never underestimate the significance of local elections. Consider elections on Taiwan over the past several decades. The quadrennial county and municipal elections are often subtle leading indicators. During the 1997 county and municipal elections the DPP was in the opposition. Yet it swept the major county and municipality races throughout Taiwan. The ruling Kuomintang was humiliated. It was left holding Hualien, Taitung and the outer islands. The results of those elections foretold the first change in ruling parties in 2000. Similarly, during the 2005 county and municipal elections, the Kuomintang was in the opposition. Northern and central Taiwan went from Green to Blue. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party was left holding seven counties and cities in southern Taiwan. The results of those elections foretold the second change in ruling parties in 2008. In other words, we may not believe in historical inevitability. But history nevertheless provides us with clear lessons. Voters on Taiwan will not make endless allowances for any political party, Blue or Green!
President Ma and his team have worked hard over the past year. They made a real effort to do well. But in politics one never gets an A for effort. Politics is all about public perception and public sentiment. It's true that the past year has been unkind to the ruling administration. The price of raw materials has skyrocketed due to global inflation. Global financial turmoil has left us with a weak global economy. Global climate change has led to hurricanes and flooding. Taiwan has been subjected to unprecedented traumas. These, perhaps, are what President Ma meant by "an unfavorable political climate." But he must not underestimate the wisdom of the voters. Leaders the world over have all been coping with "an unfavorable political environment" for the past year. Many countries have yet to emerge from their crises. But many leaders have met with public approval. Put bluntly, blaming "an unfavorable political environment" is merely shirking one's responsibility. President Ma must be vigilant, especially since his halo has dimmed so rapidly from little more than a year ago. Even party members who have violated party discipline consider him a pushover -- someone they can pick on.
President Ma's reputation took a serious hit following the 8/8 Floods earlier this year. They revealed major problems with his administration's decision-making process. Many policies that should have been aggressively promoted long ago, were repeatedly withdrawn due to fear of the public reaction. Many controversial policies were repeatedly rejected or never presented to the public for discussion. The decisions were all made behind closed doors. As a result the opposition has monopolized the debate over policy. The Ma administration has lost even the rudimentary ability to defend its policies. Take the recent election for example. The opposition repeatedly demagogued the issue of U.S. beef imports. The ruling party knew it could not resist pressure from the U.S. It also knew there would be a backlash from the grass-roots. South Korea was the clearest example. So why did it allow the worst possible scenario to play out? This was a major policy decision. Yet it was made behind closed doors, by a handful of people in the national security council. The administration failed to coordinate with the KMT. Even relevant departments within the Executive Yuan were left out of the loop. Forget about communicating with the public. Is it any surprise that a closed decision-making and governance method such as this would provoke widespread criticism? Many commentators have blasted the Ma administration for being "arrogant" and "full of themselves." This is a perfect example.
Perhaps the Ma administration should be grateful. This election was merely a flesh wound. No bones were broken. No tendons were severed. The damage inflicted is manageable. Voters used their ballots to send the administration a warning. They left the administration a chance to do better. The administration has one chance to make things right. It had better realize there will not be a second.