Will President Ma Be Re-Elected?
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
May 19, 2011
Tomorrow is May 20, the third anniversary of Ma Ying-jeou's inauguration. On January 14 of next year, we will hold the next presidential election. Almost all the polls show President Ma having a difficult time getting reelected. Will this be his last year in office?
In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou won the presidential election, He won mainly because voters gave him two mandates. One, to clean up political corruption, and two, to change cross-Strait policy. Over the past three years, President Ma has fulfilled both these mandates. He has fulfilled the voters' demands. And yet his bid for re-election remains troubled.
Consider political corruption. Chen era scandals such as the high-speed railway scandal, the Longtan Land Acquistion scandal, thje Nangang Exhibition Hall scandal, the justice system collusion scandals, the PNG scandal, the Taiwan Goals scandal, and other bizarre scandals are all things of the past. The Ma administration's troubles are confined to legislative election vote-buying, and few central or local government officials implicated in corruption cases. Over the past three years, President Ma's own conduct has been exemplary. The most earth-shaking "scandal," within the KMT was the Flora Expo "water spinach scandal." This shows how dramatically different the current administration is from the Chen administration.
Consider cross-Strait policy. Twenty years of folly under Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian left cross-Strait relations in shambles. For the past three years, the Ma administration has moved cross-Strait relations toward peaceful development and win/win coopetition. It has been a daunting taks, akin to turning the world on its axis, or akin to reviving the dead. The Chen regime's moves toward Taiwan independence brought the two sides to the brink of war. They turned Taipei and Washington into enemies. They turned Taipei into an international "troublemaker." Moves toward Taiwan independence created social divisions and widespread suffering. The Ma administration seized this historical opportunity. It upheld the principles such as the 1992 Consensus, "One China, Different Interpretations," "No Unification, No Independence, No Use of Force," "no recognition of each other's sovereignty, no repudiation of each other's authority," and "putting Taiwan first, benefitting the people." It allowed direct cross-Strait flights, and Mainland tourists to visit Taiwan. It promoted a diplomatic truce, signed 15 bilateral agreements, including ECFA. Cross-strait relations moved from hatred to peaceful development and win/win symbiosis. William Stanton, Director of the Taipei Office of the American Institute in Taiwan, described cross-Strait relations today as a "Godsend," as a "success story."
President Ma has these two major achievements to his credit. So why is his bid for re-election still in so much trouble? There are two reasons. One, over the past three years, he has been unable to win the hearts and minds of Green Camp voters. Two, he has lost the once passionate support of Blue Camp voters.
Three years ago, Tsai Ing-wen promised to "lead the DPP into the post-Chen Shui-bian era." Her promise won her the DPP chairmanship. Today however, she is working hand in glove with Chen Shui-bian, Lee Teng-hui, Frank Hsieh, Koo Kuan-min, and other Taiwan independence elements. She refuses to apologize for DPP corruption. She refuses to promise not to pardon Chen Shui-bian. She refuses to retreat on Taiwan independence. Yet her momentum far exceeds Ma Ying-jeou's. In 2004, 50.11% of the voters supported the DPP and Chen Shui-bian. In 2008, 42% of the voters supported the DPP and Frank Hsieh. Today, they apparently have even more reason to support the DPP and Tsai Ing-wen. Ma Ying-jeou cleaned up corruption, and turned cross-Strait relations around. But this means nothing to the 42% of the voters in the Green Camp. They will never vote for Ma Ying-jeou. They need no reason. Nor can they offer one.
Over the past three years, President Ma has lost his once enthusiastic supporters. This is another crisis in the way of his re-election. Three years ago, 58% of the voters threw their support behind a law-abiding, honest, self-disciplined presidential candidate who disdained populist demagoguery and Machievellian trickery. But once Ma Ying-jeou became president, those same personality traits took on the opposite meaning. He was perceived as dull, conservative, hidebound, indecisive, even weak and incompetent. What accounts for this discrepancy? Some blame President Ma's poor judgment, for example, during the recent Grand Justices nomination. Some blame the public for harboring unrealistic expectations, blaming him for the long delays in the Chen corruption trials. But one point is a constant. The public apparently prefers politicians with flash, even ones who flip-flop endlessly. They tire easily with those who are straight-laced and who lack charisma. They may feel alienated from them, even contemptuous of them. Ma Ying-jeou is unable to hold on to his supporters, for whatever the reasons may be. Hardliners dislike Ma Ying-jeou because he is wishy-washy. First time voters consider him less "fresh" than Tsai Ing-wen. No matter how solid Ma Ying-jeou might be, he cannot withstand this steady erosion. His supporters have lost their enthusiasm, and Ma Ying-jeou's re-election campaign lacks momentum.
President Ma is the incumbent. But he enjoys an advantage only because he is honest and trustworthy, and because his cross-Strait policy has provided everyone, at home and abroad, with a peace dividend. The Green Camp advocates Taiwan independence and refuses to recognize the Republic of China. It sees the peace dividend as a quid pro quo for "pandering to [Mainland] China and selling out Taiwan." President Ma's cross-Strait policy has not changed Green Camp political allegiances. Meanwhile, President Ma's honesty and trustworthiness have been devalued by negative impressions of Ma as a "teflon" politician, as someone who shrinks from the front lines, as an irresolute panderer, who is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't, as someone who is always "a day late and a dollar short," and even "incompetent." These negative impressions have alienated former supporters. In other words, the Green Camp remains hostile to Ma Ying-jeou. The Blue Camp is disappointed with Ma Ying-jeou because he comes across as sluggish to the point of obtuseness. This is why Ma Ying-jeou's re-election bid is in trouble.
But President Ma's accomplishments over the past three years, go far beyond the presidential election. He has taken cross-Strait relations past the point of no return. Even if he fails to win re-election, his successor will have to follow in Ma's footsteps. The more his successor refuses to follow in Ma's footsteps, the more disastrous the consequences will be. President Ma is relatively bland, in both style and substance. He is not the kind to provoke an internal crisis by demanding the "rectification of names," or proclaiming that the "Pacific Ocean has no lid." He is not the kind to provoke an international crisis that tars Taipei as a "trouble maker," or to embark on a "lost voyage." His personal style is one of self-restraint. He is not one to stir up trouble. He is not one to use people as political tools. He may come across as dull. But he is a national leader who has avoided tearing his nation apart, who has maintained cross-Strait and international peace. If President Ma fails to win re-election, his successor must win the trust of the public, of Beijing, and of the international community. Otherwise the Big Picture will not remain secure.
Over the past three years, President Ma has completed what President Chiang Ching-kuo set out to do 23 years ago, when he lifted martial law and liberalized the political system. Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian linked our democratic institutions to Taiwan independence. They made them part of a hostile cross-Strait power struggle. Ma linked our democratic institutions to cross-Strait peace. He liberated us from Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian's negative legacy.
As matters stand, President Ma might not win re-election. But if Ma's successor departs from his cross-strait policy, and fails to inspire the same trust at home, across the Strait, and around the world, it will be impossible to promote the security of the nation.
In conclusion, President Ma's leadership over the past three years may be riddled with controversy. It may contain defects. It may have failed to fulfill its potential. But its overall political direction is correct, and it is morally unassailable. Even if Ma fails to win a second term, its achievements have already transcended the presidential elections. Any future president will find them difficult to surpass.