Ma's Taiwan: Year of the Lame Horse

Killing time with the most unpopular leader in the island state's history.

The year of the horse began last week, but for Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou (whose surname means horse) the signs are inauspicious. With two years remaining in his second and final term, and with important midterm elections scheduled for the end of the year, Ma has alienated large sections of society and his own party, the Kuomintang (KMT). Even the historic first visit to the mainland later this month by the head of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), the ministry-level agency that deals with cross-Strait relations on the Taiwan side, lacks the feel of the culmination of a successful six-year rapprochement and engagement strategy. Indeed, the KMT-controlled legislature, prompted by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), felt compelled to impose restrictions on the scale of the MAC mission. The opposition raised concerns that a desperate pro-China president, one who sees himself as a ‘history man’, might seek to do something intemperate and irreversible to rescue his crumbling legacy. Ma’s failed purge of the KMT Speaker of the Legislature late last year no doubt had a bearing on proceedings.

The year of the lame horse will see President Ma increasingly marginalized and at odds with his own party. The KMT, which ruled under martial law for four decades before steering Taiwan towards democracy in the 1990s, faces the dilemma of what to do with an unpopular President who is simultaneously Chairman of the party. Important municipal and local “7-in-1” elections are coming up in November, which will set the tone for the presidential and legislative campaigns in early 2016. Jockeying for position within the KMT will be intense, with the offspring of party elders like Lien Chan and Wu Po-hsiung well-placed alongside incumbent (and fellow ‘princelings’) Taipei City mayor Hau Long-bin and New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu. The KMT’s resilience and adaptability is remarkable. It has flourished since democratization, never losing control of the Legislature. But the one time it lost the Presidency, in 2000, was the result of internal conflicts that led to a split in the party and a split of the vote that allowed the DPP in with just 39 percent. Whatever their personal feelings about Ma and notwithstanding their own battles for primacy, KMT elites are aware that as long as the party remains unified, it has a better than even chance of maintaining power in 2016. Despite his increasingly futile tenure, the DPP has not, as yet, been able to capitalize on Ma’s travails, and the party’s recent review of its China policy suggest that it will continue to be hampered by an unworkable platform for engaging China. We should not forget also that the KMT remains far and away the most efficient conduit for pork, a particular issue in legislative voting.

Where did it go wrong?

President Ma Ying-jeou has twice won election for president, a landslide victory in 2008 after the inept and corrupt tenure of the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian followed by comfortable reelection in 2012. The export-led Taiwanese economy has suffered, but certainly no more than equivalent economies since the global financial crisis. The president has won praise and plaudits in Beijing, Tokyo and Washington for his conciliatory approach to cross-Strait relations and adroit management of Taiwan’s role in territorial conflicts in the East China Sea. On the surface, Ma has presided over a remarkable transformation in the temperature of cross-Strait relations. His quick embrace of the ‘1992 Consensus’ (Beijing emphasizes the ‘one China’ statement, Taipei the ‘different interpretations’ qualifier) led to successive cross-Strait economic deals, the end of unseemly competition for diplomatic allies, and expanded opportunities for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. Others argue that a top twenty global economy and liberal democracy should not require the acquiescence of an outside government in order to participate in crucial health and aviation organizations, but that is the reality. Some Taiwanese note that the warmth and goodwill that Ma has generated has not led to a concomitant reduction in the number of missiles (1600 or more) directed at Taiwan from across the 100km Strait. And critics of Ma argue that his cross-Strait successes were built on nothing more than the fact that he did not represent Beijing’s despised DPP, which it suspects of a “secessionist plot”.