Taiwan’s Golden Boy Stumbles
With tens of thousands of protesters at the gates of the presidential palace this week to demand a recall of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou, the opposition Kuomintang Party’s presidential hopeful, presents a welcome surface contrast – handsome, a jogger who speaks fluent English and has a law degree from Harvard University in the US. But he is increasingly disappointing the public and his backers as well, endangering the century-old Kuomintang’s chance to emerge from the political wilderness in the 2008 presidential election.
Until relatively recently, Ma, who was born in Hong Kong but moved to Taiwan with his family when he was a year old, was clearly a rising star, a favorite in Washington. Born into the family of a senior ruling Kuomintang official in 1950, Ma was virtually raised to become a key official in a party that regarded government positions as a hereditary right. Shortly after he received his doctoral degree at Harvard, he was appointed deputy chief of the Presidential Office’s First Bureau in 1981 and served as the English secretary to President Chiang Ching-Kuo in 1982. As the government repeatedly reshuffled, he made his way up through the ranks to senior KMT posts, either in the government or the party.
A bit of a technocrat, under his stewardship Taipei is now a completely wired city. He regularly leads trips to Taiwan’s badly polluted rivers and demands their cleanup. He advocates direct trade, transport and postal links with China, telling Time Magazine in May that without direct links, “We've effectively moved Taipei to where Jakarta is. Can you think of anything more stupid than that?”
None other than Chinese President Hu Jintao delivered a congratulatory telegraph as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, urging Ma to work together for the stable and peaceful development of cross-Strait relations. In return, Ma said in a speech at the KMT’s youth league in January that he “hopes the youth league could cultivate another Hu Jintao.” Nonetheless, no China sycophant, the mayor attends memorial services for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen slaughter and has demanded that China face up to the massacre. He goes to Falun Gong gatherings. He criticized China’s recent decision to push through an anti-secession law. He did not follow his predecessor, Lien Chan, or People First Party leader James Soong on their visits to China, which gave more of a boost to Beijing than to the KMT.
However, Ma is increasingly seen as a vacillating politician whose ambition gets in the way of his decision-making. His image started to collapse almost as soon as he initiated his successful bid to become chairman of the Kuomintang Party in July last year. Even members of his own party are beginning to question his leadership, particularly when last week, he overrode the Taipei City Police Department to give his conditional approval for the round-the-clock sit-in protest against President Chen, contradicting repeated earlier statements that granting permits for rallies falls under the police department's jurisdiction. Critics charged that Ma’s approval of the sit-in would benefit the Kuomintang and Ma himself, especially after it was learned that he had sent a check for NT$100 to support the protesters, signed only “Mr Ma.”
In June, he made a U-turn on support for a recall of Chen, choosing not to endorse a People First Party proposal to recall the president through the legislative process and insisting that no evidence existed to implicate Chen in wrongdoing. “We can’t pull the trigger just because we see a shadow,” he said.
However, as public anger escalated over charges that Chen’s son-in-law, Chao Chien-ming, was involved in a trading scandal in which Chao was alleged by authorities to have made up to NT$74 million through dummy accounts to buy shares in a Taiwan real estate developer, Ma ultimately succumbed to pressure and endorsed the recall bill. The recall bill then failed to pass in the legislature, ending for the moment the opposition parties’ confrontation with Chen. But Ma wasn’t able to come up with a convincing reason for his volte-face and his support level slid sharply, to 50 percent.
The recall’s failure frustrated KMT members. However, until the mass protest questioning the fairness of the 2004 presidential election, Ma had sidestepped many sensitive political decisions. In 2004, he chose to become Taipei city’s mayor and declined to stand with his party’s presidential candidate Lien Chan during protests. On April 10, 2004, Ma further ordered the police to use force to expel the KMT-PFP protesters. That traumatized his supporters and other political leaders.
Furthermore, the negative campaign he ran as he contended for the KMT chairman position led to the souring of his relationship with KMT’s heavyweight politician Wang Jin-ping, the legislature speaker. Some KMT legislators argue that his sticking with regulations was why he ended up with a rather cold image. “He lacks flexibility and warmth,” said KMT legislator Ho Tsai-feng, a member of the KMT’s central committee.
Despite Ma’s erstwhile high popularity in Taipei, he appears unable to fulfill his full campaign platform before he steps down at the end of this year. Complaints are rising about the time he is spending dealing with KMT party affairs, one reason for his drop in the Commonwealth Magazine survey of 25 local Taiwanese leaders from No.1 to No. 8.
Some observers believe his lackluster performance could create unnecessary difficulty for the campaign of the KMT’s mayoral election nominee, Hau Lung-bin, former minister of the Environmental Protection Administration and son of former Prime Minister Hau Pei-tsun. Hau has been leading in the polls since he was nominated in early June. The ruling DPP nominee and former Prime Minister Frank Hsieh is trailing Hau and People’s First Party chairman James Soong is ranked third in the polls. Analysts warn that Soong’s candidacy would only serve to boost Hsieh's chances of election, as it would split the "pan-blue alliance" vote.
Ma’s handling of Beijing and Washington also received poor evaluations. In March, he paid a nine-day visit to Washington. Despite his high-profile reception in the US capitol, some academics didn’t hide their disappointment. “Ma was ill-prepared for his visits to the US and Europe. He wasn’t able to answer tough questions well, particularly on the defense budget and details about his policy toward China,” said a Washington based China affairs expert, who declined to be identified.
“Frankly, Ma Ying-jeou is no different from Chen Shui-bian. He is simply another animal that cares about elections all the time,” said Lu Xiaoheng, a Beijing based Taiwan affairs analyst.
And, warned former DPP chairman Hsu Hsin-liang, who gave up his party membership to run as an independent candidate in 1999, in a recent speech at KMT headquarters:
“You (Ma Ying-jeou) are too good, but being too good too early is not a good thing. Winning the KMT’s chairmanship now looks like the pinnacle of your political career.”
Ma can still count on his clean image and telegenic looks. He has kept his distance from the KMT machine, with its reputation for corruption, and the old guard like Lien Chan. On cross-straits issues he had kept to a safe middle road. The KMT would be reluctant to ditch him unless it has a very strong alternative given its failure in the last two presidential elections thanks to the lack of charisma of its candidate in what is a contest over personalities as well as party policies. But James Soong remains a possible spoiler again and the DPP still has more than 18 months to put Chen Shui-bian behind it.
Although the party looks in appalling shape, it – or at least the Pan-green camp -- has a strong base and a strong candidate for the presidential election such as Premier Su Tsang-chang may emerge. Su has a clean image, had distanced himself from Chen and moved the government towards the centre on cross-straits issues. Vice-president Annette Lu also has potential. She is controversial but tough and not touched by recent scandals. Also, although former DPP leader Shing Ming-the has been in the forefront of the “dump Chen” movement, he has been careful not to ally with Pan-Blue.
So though the rage against Chen may now look like it is preparing the way for an easy victory for Ma, a lot could yet happen between now and the legislative elections in December 2007 and presidential one in March 2008.
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