President Ma's Second Anniversary: Unfulfilled Expectations and Their Remedies
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
May 20, 2010
President Ma Ying-jeou has been in office for two years. He has passed the middle of his term of office. The past two years could be considered a collision between the type of president Ma Ying-jeou wanted to be, and the type of president the public wanted him to be. The next two years will require that he bridge the gap between his expectations and those of the public. This will determine the success or failure of his four-year presidential term.
Two years ago, on May 28, the Executive Yuan made a surprise announcement. Gasoline prices would be raised. On April 25 this year, the Two Yings Debate took place. These two events can be seen as bookends. They bracket Ma Ying-jeou's two years in office. They reflect the gap in expectations, and the remedies that must be applied.
On May 20, 2008, President Ma took office. The Chen administration had frozen gasoline prices for six months. The public waited to see if the new administration would fulfill its "one time only increase" election promise. Sure enough on June 2 the Liu cabinet announced a price increase. Alas this provoked gasoline hoarding, putting the public at risk from hazard of fire. With lightning speed the Liu cabinet announced a price increase on the 29th. People responded by lining up to fill their tanks. Gas lines stretched for miles. Public discontent came to a boil. The public concluded that the Ma administration had flunked its very first test.
The Ma administration has now changed its policy to "floating prices" adjusted every week. This was the very first test for the Ma administration. For the next two years the Ma administration would repeat this same defective decision making procedure, again and again. It would find itself on the receiving end of public wrath, again and again. In terms of oil prices, the decision to "respect the market mechanism" and adopt "floating prices" is strategically correct. But to announce price increases on June 2, provoking hoarding, then making another surprise announcement, provoking gas lines, was a tactical blunder that stirred up a political storm. Public disillusionment and skepticism regarding the Ma administration's "rule of law" and "meat and potatoes economics" began to grow.
Examples such as this are too numerous to list. For example, President Ma declared that typhoon disaster relief was mainly Premier Liu Chao-hsuan's responsibility, and that the president ought to retreat to the second line. Disaster victims were both angry and suspicious. They puzzled over the reasoning behind his declaration. The 8/8 Flood was a major disaster. Yet Ma Ying-jeou failed to declare an emergency. He was characterized as "legally correct" but "politically incorrect." Another example was the recent arbitration victory in the Lafayette frigate kickback scandal. The Chen administration attempted to settle the case privately, on the pretext that "arms compensation" is not merely a means of engaging in corruption, it also impacts international and cross-Strait politics. Ma Ying-jeou however risked the uncertain outcome of arbitration, refused reconciliation, and forsook the opportunity to use "arms compensation" to manipulate international politics.
Many have blasted Ma Ying-jeou, calling him stupid. In fact they are merely saying they don't think he is sufficiently calculating, sufficiently devious, sufficiently tuned in, sufficiently Machievellian, sufficiently ruthless. For example, the public feels that Chen Tsung-ming refuses to step down because Ma Ying-jeou is "impotent" and "gutless." But one of Ma's important political convictions is non-interference in judicial affairs. Unfortunately this has led to a "gap in expectations."
The Two Yings Debate held in April of this year can be viewed as the beginning of an attempt to bridge the gap in expectations. Given Ma Ying-jeou's personality, he may have been looking forward to a calm and rational dialogue. Been circumstances forced him into a head to head debate. Ma probably knew he was at a disadvantage vis a vis debating skills. But he respects the opposition's watchdog role. He ran a major political risk. He put himself on an equal footing with Tsai Ing-wen and accepted the challenge. Fortunately Ma Ying-jeou gained the upper hand. Otherwise who knows how much worse the "gap in expectations" would have gotten?
During the Two Yings Debate public attention was focused on which of the two Yings was turning in a better public performance. But Ma Ying-jeou was probably merely hoping to gain public understanding and trust. The way Ma Ying-jeou handled himself during the debate showed he was serious, diligent, and sincere. He knew the risks. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. He knew the economy had to be revived. Tsai Ing-wen refrained from accusing Ma Ying-jeou of "pandering to [mainland] China and selling out Taiwan" because it was merely a Green Camp street slogan. There is no assurance it would have done the trick during the debate. In fact one of Ma Ying-jeou's most important personality traits is his loyalty to the Republic of China. That may be why his cross-Strait policy has gained the support and trust of a majority of the public. Which political leader on Taiwan besides Ma Ying-jeou exhibits these personality traits?
What kind of president does Ma Ying-jeou want to be? He probably does not want to be a media star. Instead, he wants the nation and its government to operate in accordance with the principles of justice and the rule of law. In cross-Strait affairs, he wants to be pragmatic. He is unwilling to see cross-Strait issues exploited for populist leverage during political struggles. His political style has led to a shortfall in public expectations. How can the President stand on the "second line?" Why doesn't Chen Tsung-ming feel compelled to step down? Why is the Chen Shui-bian corruption case on hold? Why is the majority party in the Legislative Yuan doing nothing? Why doesn't he meet with the Dalai Lama? Why the string of lost elections? Why the tax cuts for the wealthy? Why will ECFA harm weak industries? Why do we all feel so ill at ease?
Ma Ying-jeou has been president for two years. The Republic of China inhabits a world in which the mainland is rising, the U.S. is declining, the Republic of China is wracked by internal divisions, government personnel are either veterans or rookies, with no one in between, justice no longer prevails, the Chen corruption case is going nowhere, the global economic crisis has slowed economic growth, the threat of ASEAN plus N has surfaced, and the threat of economic marginalization looms. This would seem to be the time for a Man on Horseback, a "Father of Democracy," or a "Son of Taiwan" to come riding to the rescue. Instead, to lead us out of our predicament, we have a political leader who studiously maintains a low political profile, who eschews populist demagoguery, but who has won the trust of leaders abroad, across the Taiwan Strait, and on Taiwan. Ma Ying-jeou apparently regard this as his historical role. Taiwan must no longer be a political stage for charismatic demagogues. Taiwan needs self-effacing political leaders who can heal cross-Strait wounds, and allow us to return to peace and reason.
But a two year "gap in expectations" has left Ma Ying-jeou scarred. The public is disappointed in him. Ma Ying-jeou now stands on the front line, and is moving closer and closer to the "politics of the man in the street." The Two Yings Debate will be viewed as an attempt to address the "gap in expectations." Ma Ying-jeou hopes to win public understanding and trust for his policies. But populism may prevail. The public may care more about who turned in a better performance during the debate.
The Republic of China is in dire straits, internally and externally. President Ma's performance will be held up to a microscope, a magnifying glass. It will even be held up before a funhouse mirror. He must watch what he says. A single remark about having "creepy feelings" can provoke public attacks. He must be careful to maintain his trusted and irreplaceable role in cross-Strait affairs. Ma Ying-jeou admittedly has many things he can be criticized for. His policy bungles have left his administration in crisis. But as we review the record of the past two years, he remains the right choice to lead the Republic of China over the next few years,
2010.05.20 01:57 am