President Ma Must Lead Public Opinion and Offer the Nation a Clear Direction
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
June 6, 2013
Summary: On Taiwan, for government leaders and the man in the street, "Democracy is all about public opinion." At least, that is the mantra. But for many, the reality is "Public opinion is as changeable as running water." If public policy is erected on a foundation of running water, how firm can the edifice of state possibly be?
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On Taiwan, for government leaders and the man in the street, "Democracy is all about public opinion." At least, that is the mantra. But for many, the reality is "Public opinion is like running water." If public policy is erected on a foundation of running water, how firm can the edifice of state possibly be?
Great Britain's constitutional framework is rooted in John Locke's concept of the right of resistance. If the government does not conform to the public will, the people can replace it at their discretion. That is why a no confidence vote grants parliament the right to dissolve the parliament and the cabinet. Its purpose is to keep public policy in step with public opinion. This accords with the ideals of democracy. But it also facilitates majoritarian tyranny within the national legislature, Nations within the Anglosphere are aware of this danger. That is why they separated the executive and legislative powers. Their national founders had a vision. Presidential power would be concentrated in a single person. This would enable him or her to respond more swiftly while leading the nation. Legislative power would be dispersed among many individuals, and between two houses. This would make them more responsive to public opinion. Judicial power would be conferred upon judges for life. This would enable them to transcend political pressures. Therefore, even though the president and members of the legislature are both elected. Their elections have very different meanings. The former is an election for "the best and the brightest." The hope is that those elected will have both the wisdom and the determination to lead the nation. That is why they are given a fixed term of four years. This enables them to avoid the pressure of public opinion. The latter is an election for "vox populi," for a "voice of the people." That is why they are given mere two-year terms. This prevents them from becoming out of touch with public opinion. The British system is different. The parliament lacks the right to hold a no confidence vote to facilitate and defend the president's leadership.
Our constitutional framework stipulates a five part separation of powers. But at its core, the separation of powers is between the executive and the legislative. In spirit, it clearly resembles the American model. In other words, we elect a president to provide us with a clear sense of direction. We want someone with the courage to lead public opinion. We want a wise leader able to defy legislative pressure. We do not want someone who is constantly holding up his finger to see which way the wind is blowing. We do not want a "jellyfish head of state" unable to stick to his principles. Unfortunately, President Ma's record over the past five years, shows a surfeit of supplication and a dearth of determination. Last year's U.S. beef imports controversy, and this year's Number Four Nuclear Power Plant controversy persist. During both of these controversies, he exhibited the same character deficiencies.
After last year's Lunar New Year, rumors emerged that the United States was pressuring him to allow the importation of U.S. beef products. Then newly re-elected President Ma repeatedly stipulated, "no promises, no timetable, no predetermined position." As we all know, the resumption of TIFA talks was necessary to join the TPP. This was hard reality. Taipei has very little bargaining power. But the president's announcement that he had "no predetermined position" opened Pandora's Box. Pandemonium erupted among various special interests and between the ruling and opposition parties. Only in April did the president belatedly put his foot down and say, "US beef imports must be allowed in. This is a matter of national credibility." He confessed that Taipei and Washington already had an agreement. The U.S. beef imports controversy dragged on until the last day of the June legislative session. Only then was the bill finally passed. The entire country wasted five months arguing over a decision that had already been made. President Ma's approval rating tested new lows.
Sadly, last year's U.S. beef imports fiasco failed to teach President Ma a lesson. Ma is now betting his credibility as a leader on the Number Four Nuclear Power Plant. In February, President Ma met with KMT legislators to discuss nuclear power plant issues. According to Ma, he had "no predetermined position." He appeared to be open to the legislators' recommendations. To prove that Ma had no predetermined position, Premier Chiang suggested a public referendum. This would allow the public to decide whether to continue construction. President Ma expressed stauch support for such a referendum. But the Number Four Nuclear Power Plant is a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure project. How can the nation's highest ranking political leader not have any opinion about whether to finish construction? Can a public referendum resolve the multitude of complex public financing and technological problems involved? If it can, then why go to the trouble of electing a president and granting him these decision-making powers? Is President Ma using a public referendum as political cover for his decision to continue construction on the Number Four Nuclear Power Plant? When such suspicions arise, the referendum no longer serves to legitimize the president's decisions. In other words, just as in the U.S. beef imports fiasco, such a referendum will only waste the nation's time and energy.
This week, Ma invited media executives and reporters on a grand tour of power generation facilities. He took them on an overnight visit of the Number Three Nuclear Power Plant. During a walking tour, Ma declared, "In the short-term alternative energy sources cannot replace nuclear energy. The Immediate impact of abolishing nuclear energy would be great. Nuclear energy is essential during any transition period." The implication was clear. The Number Four Nuclear Power Plant must be finished. Ma clearly believes this is the case. He is the nation's highest leader. People across the nation are looking for a clear direction and for leadership. So why did Ma not speak up and state his position at the beginning of the year? Why mire people across the nation in a "public referendum?" Why flip-flop between this and solemn reassurances that "Without nuclear safety, there can be no nuclear power?" As some in the media have noted, If Ma already had a position, he should have attempted to set forth a convincing "National Energy Discourse." He should not waste time and energy on a public referendum.
The design of our political framework posits the president as the nation's helmsman. It matters not whether he or she belongs to the same party or the same faction. The public wants a president who exudes conviction and evinces consistency, who provides individuals and the nation with opportunities for growth. People need to plan their careers and their lives. But on one issue after another, from U.S. beef imports to the Number Four Nuclear Power Plant, President Ma has nothing to say except "I have no predetermined position." He puts on a show of openness and tolerance. He seldom bears any resemblance to other national leaders, who solemnly take to the podium to officially proclaim national policy, and to reassure the public. If the media and the public can only learn what the president is thinking from from his intraparty statements, his public interviews, personal visits, and facebook posts, can we blame the public when it calls him a spineless jellyfish?