Monday, April 19, 2010

Ma Administration: Ratings Fall, But Still on Probation

Ma Administration: Ratings Fall, But Still on Probation
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
April 19, 2010

During a recent interview with Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao, KMT Secretary-General King Pu-tsung spoke frankly about President Ma Ying-jeou's approval ratings. He said that compared to political leaders in the United States and Japan, Ma's ratings have fallen more precipitously. But in response to the substantial 18 percent decline in the latest poll, King Pu-tsung said "This is a positive sign." The KMT's internal polls may offer some comfort to the Ma administration. But the accompanying decline in approval ratings suggests that public approval of President Ma's job performance has not increased, and is frozen at its current level. In other words, the public has put Ma on probation, and is adopting a "wait and see" attitude. Neither Ma nor the KMT should be too pleased with themselves.

Why has President Ma Ying-jeou's halo been so badly tarnished in two short years? This is a conundrum that has bedeviled the Blue Camp. Since the Ma administration took office two years ago, the Blue Camp been defeated in several legislative by-elections, and in last year's three in one county and municipal elections. These defeats reflect the decline in President Ma's popularity. Ever since the Ma administration took office, such challenges as the global financial tsunami and Typhoon Morakot have brought the Ma administration's ability to govern into serious question. Premier Wu's political finesse has allowed the ruling administration's approval ratings to recover somewhat. But President Ma's own approval ratings have not followed suit.

President Ma may not be willing to admit it. But apart from its determination to sign the cross-strait economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA), the Ma administration is a governing body without guiding principles. During the Ma administration's first term it set up a Tax Reform Commission. It invited a wide range of scholars and experts to participate. But frictions arose and it was dissolved, because the government lacked a comprehensive understanding of the tax system. Its economics and finance oriented officials lacked an overview of the nation's finances, including inheritance taxes, capital gains taxes, and most recently, business taxes. Yet they cavalierly changed their tax rate recommendations in response to pressure from higher ups, against their profession judgment.

The Industrial Innovation Act changed the government's long held 20% bottom line on business taxes, almost overnight. It incorporated a tax rate even lower than the DPP's. The KMT was amenable to political appeals. It was even more eager than the DPP to cut taxes. Besides attracting votes, its tax cuts had no professional justification. The Industrial Innnovation Act is an evolution of the old Investment Awards Act and the Production Promotion Act. These two acts should have been sunsetted upon expiration. After years of development, industries that received special privileges or incentives have all become both powerful and profitable. Their tax umbrellas should have been closed up long ago. Who knew these umbrellas would be opened even wider, until they covered traditional and small and medium industries? Who knew that business taxes would be also cut, to the point where the Industrial Innovation Act has lost all meaning?

The Ma administration's lack of guiding principles is not limited to the Industry Innovation Act. Last year the Legislative Yuan reviewed the Local Government Act. The Ma administration yielded to the Taipei County Government in order to pander to voters in Tainan and Kaohsiung. With a single stroke of the pen, it increased the number of directly administered metropolises the government had planned from three to five. This has planted the seeds for even more uneven development on Taiwan. Agencies in the executive branch never planned for five directly administered metropolises. They have never completed either land plans nor administrative plans. Agencies responsible for financial matters have never completed the requisite revenue and expenditure plans. The ruling administration failed even to settle on suitable candidates for the five metropolises. It has without a doubt shot itself in the foot.

No one seems to care about the problems created by the establishment of these five directly administered metropolises. Both ruling and opposition party politicians are concerned only about who will be nominated and how they can win. Is the creation of these five directly administered metropolises compatible with the overall development of the nation? That is not their concern. They already occupy positions of power. They hope to become the heads of these five metropolises, or even higher offices. The larger interests of the nation are not their concern. Their sole concern is their own election campaigns. It is clear to see that no matter how many changes in ruling parties Taiwan undergoes, it is unlikely to lead to a healthy democracy, and even less likely to produce political appointees with vision.

Before Ma Ying-jeou became the leader of the nation, no one thought he lacked vision or convictions. But less than two years later, the government's weaknesses have been exposed. This includes conflicts between the cabinet and the ruling party legislative caucus, leading to government paralysis in times of crisis. The cabinet has been reshuffled. But major policies still fall victim to cavalier deal making within the legislature. Expert staffers are completely sidelined. The Liu cabinet was too elitist. The Wu cabinet is too unprofessional. The Ma administration has yet to find a balance between the public and its specialists, making it difficult for the public to give President Ma or his cabinet an accurate evaluation.

At about the same time King Pu-tsung was being interviewed, yet another Commonwealth Poll showed President Ma's approval rating stuck at 30% or so, and his disapproval rating rising to 66%. The KMT can interpret this data however it wants. But as long as one's approval rating have not rebounded, and one's disapproval ratings have not diminished, voter support will not be forthcoming. The Ma administration, including the party and the government, fully understands the public's perception. They know the public believes that "President Ma is a good man." But merely being a good man does not make one a leader the public can trust.

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