Democracy's Lament: The Theory that Policy Achievements are Useless
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
January 3, 2011
Summary: Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen are in a tug of war. Observers are puzzled. They are trying to understand voter sentiment by examining the candidates' character, the accuracy of the polls, the voters' political coloration, and the rival political parties' campaign strategies. One of the most peculiar explanations for voter sentiment is Taichung City Mayor Jason Hu's "Policy Achievements are Useless Theory," which concludes that voters really do not care about the candidate's record of policy achievements.
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Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen are in a tug of war. Observers are puzzled. They are trying to understand voter sentiment by examining the candidates' character, the accuracy of the polls, the voters' political coloration, and the rival political parties' campaign strategies. One of the most peculiar explanations for voter sentiment is Taichung City Mayor Jason Hu's "Policy Achievements are Useless Theory," which concludes that voters really do not care about the candidate's record of policy achievements.
Jason Hu's theory is based on his own experience as mayor last year, and on Ma Ying-jeou's lack of momentum this year. These led him to his current "Policy Achievements are Useless Theory." He says elections today are perverse, Voters turn a blind eye to performance. In the past, if a candidate's past performance was good, he stood a good chance of being reelected. But voters today are "unmoved" by a candidate's policy achievements. Consider Ma and Tsai for example. One of them has a glowing record of policy achievements. The other has absolutely nothing to show for her years in office. Yet a majority of the voters perceive "no difference" between the two.
Hu's interpretation, his personal experience, and his subjective judgments, are not necessarily accurate. But judging by the current campaign, this "Policy Achievements are Useless Theory" contains more than a kernel of truth. No matter how much President Ma does, no matter how his administration's policy path has benefited Taiwan, many voters simply do not care. In other words, amidst Blue vs. Green political rivalry, party loyalty far outweighs concern for policy achievements. An infamous Green Camp expression, "Even though our bellies may be empty, we still intend to vote for Ah-Bian" is the best evidence of this. The Chen family corruption scandals had absolutely no impact on voters' party loyalties. Swing voters meanwhile, became increasingly cynical. This was probably the biggest change for Taiwan's democracy.
Leave aside the question of whether Ma Ying-jeou or Tsai Ing-wen is more likely to win the election for the moment. If the "Policy Achievements are Useless Theory" is true, then what voters care about is not the candidate's performance or integrity. If true, what is the point of democracy on Taiwan? What is its purpose? What is its significance?
Leave aside the validity of the "Policy Achievements are Useless Theory" for the moment. Ma Ying-jeou has the power of the incumbency. Yet he continues to fight an uphill battle. This amounts to a wake-up call. Ma Ying-jeou has governed for the past three years. He has been harshly criticized not for his policy decisions, but for being "too wimpy," and for excessive concern for details at the expense of the Big Picture. On the one hand, this has not won him any fans in the Green Camp. On the other hand, this has lost him fans in the Blue Camp. Ma Ying-jeou earnestly aspires to be a "president for all the people." But his efforts have been for naught. Blue vs. Green polarization on Taiwan has not softened as a result of his moderate temperament. On the contrary, it has led to cease identifying with him. This is something he must consider.
Consider Ma's performance. President Ma promoted cross-Strait peace and negotiations. He enabled the ROC to avoid domestic struggle and provided it with international breathing room. He has obtained visa free treatment for ROC citizens in over 100 foreign countries. He promoted justice system reforms, residential tax reform, and even the abolition of tax exemption for military and civil service employees. He ensured stable development during the international financial crisis. These achievements may not warrant the term "brilliant successes." But compare it to the Chen era's Closed Door Policy, to its bull in a china shop diplomacy, to its endless domestic struggles, to its total inability to govern the nation, to its ubiquitous slogans. The Ma administration has at least put the country back on track. How should a normal political party govern? Are the voters "unmoved?" Do they wish to return to internecine struggles, to an endless succession of premiership appointments? Is that what the people consider "vitality?"
That said, a presidential election does not merely elect a national leader. More importantly, the electorate applies its collective intelligence during this political process. This is how the electorate establishes a sounder, more pluralistic society for itself and for the next generation. Democracy on Taiwan has undergone many changes. But Rome wasn't built in a day. Advances are followed by retreats. The road is strewn with tears. The fear is that people will not be able to withstand the heat, and will abandon the kitchen. That they will become cynical and lose heart. That they will conclude it "makes no difference" who wins. That they will conclude "crows the world over are equally black." Such disillusionment, such a loss of voters with minds of their own, is the greatest threat to democracy on Taiwan.
The "Policy Achievements are Useless Theory" is not a prediction, It is a curse. If people do not believe in performance, if politicians do not care about performance, then a political process without purpose will lead to nihilism. Democracy will leave behind only sadness. Tsai's policy achievements cannot be compared to Ma's. But let us compare them anyway. Let us compare the Ma administration's four years in office with the Chen administration's eight years in office. Both the quality and quantity offer concrete bases for comparison. The TaiMed biotech subsidies scandal has exposed Tsai Ing-wen's corrupt underbelly. She is no longer tabula rasa. She is no longer a dream candidate. Voters now have a basis by which they can assess the two candidates' character and integrity.
The current election appears calm on the surface. But beneath the surface, lurks frustration with the status quo and anxiety about the future. Will the future be better? The answer will not emerge from the mouths of politicians. Voters must subject the candidates' achievements and character to rigorous scrutiny. Only then can the future be better.
2012.01.03 02:46 am