Ma's Taiwan: Year of the Lame Horse

February 4, 2014 Topic: Domestic PoliticsElectionsThe PresidencyPolitics Region: Taiwan

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”.

Yet Ma’s reputation abroad bears little resemblance to that at home. If his first term was punctuated by mismanagement and personal ineffectiveness, embodied by the botched response to the devastating Typhoon Morakot, his second term has been bedevilled by popular protests on a wide range of social issues. Growing concerns about the cost of living, the price of housing and the growing gap between rich and poor were accompanied by protests about media freedom, land expropriation, treatment of laid-off workers, environmental issues and the bullying of military conscripts. These issues led to an uninterrupted chain of demonstrations and protests through summer and fall of 2013. Taiwan is no stranger to street protests, but in the past, almost without exception, one or other of the main political parties has been responsible for mobilizing supporters. The protests last year were led by grassroots movements with no connection to political parties, and contrary to popular characterizations of an individualistic and politically apathetic “Strawberry Generation”, many were led by students and other young people in their twenties. Just a few months after re-election, Ma’s public approval fell below his bumbling and crooked predecessor’s worst rating of 18 percent.

Pressed on one side by flatlining public support, Ma was further rocked by conflicts with the Legislature and by revelations about widespread wiretapping. Although the KMT possesses a comfortable majority in the legislature, the administration’s communication and relationship with the KMT caucus is increasingly fractious. In summer 2012, the Legislature passed a law on capital gains tax that was unrecognizable from the proposal that Ma had intended to address budget deficits incurred during his first term and had promoted as a tool to decrease the widening social gap.

More problematic was the reaction to Ma's announcement of a cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, a follow-on to the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), the limited Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Taiwan and China signed in 2010 that was the keystone policy of Ma’s first term. The Service Trade Agreement would open up the services market on each side. Apart from the pact being part of Ma's broader agenda to concretize cross-Strait relations he argues that the pact will increase Taiwan's international competitiveness. It is part of the government’s efforts to sign FTAs with its major trading partners, in response to similar agreements between Taiwan’s economic rivals and multilateral agreements across the region, that Taiwan’s status and Chinese opposition prevents it from entering.

Problems began when it emerged that the Ma administration had negotiated with Chinese partners without any communication with the Legislature, probably in the expectation that the KMT majority would rubber-stamp anything laid before it. When information about the agreement became public last summer, KMT legislators were as surprised as anyone. There is strong bipartisan opposition against the pact in the Legislature, among the industries worried about Chinese competition, and from the opposition parties and civil-society groups that have long been concerned by Taiwan’s over-dependence on the Chinese market. Unsurprisingly, the process of ratifying the pact in the Legislature has stalled, despite Ma repeatedly calling for speedy ratification.

The fact that KMT legislators were unaware of the content and extent of the Service Pact speaks volumes about Ma’s personal modus operandi, and relations between the administration and the Legislature. Consistent with both, in September last year Ma tried and failed to expel KMT Speaker Wang from the Party and remove him from the position he has held in the Legislature for the last 14 years. Unusually effective working across the aisle, but an old adversary in KMT leadership contests, Wang’s support for the DPP’s argument that the Service Agreement should be passed line by line, was seen as slap in Ma’s face. In response, Ma clumsily attempted to oust Wang while he was abroad attending his daughter’s wedding. Rather than accepting the attempted fait accompli, Wang appealed the decision and received backing from the courts. With KMT power brokers offering tacit support to Wang, Ma was forced to backtrack. Soon after the debacle, Ma’s popular approval sank to 9 percent, an embarrassment for a politician who had called upon his predecessor to step down when the latter’s approval rate plummeted to 18 percent.

Impacts on cross-Strait relations

While Ma’s entanglements with his own party have been bruising domestically, they threaten to tarnish the most cherished fruit of his Presidency; cross-Strait relations. The stalling of the Service Pact is one example, another is the bipartisan resolution in the Legislature imposing limits on the upcoming meeting between MAC chairman Wang Yu-chi and his Chinese counterpart Zhang Zhijun, scheduled for February 11. It will be the first official meeting between ROC and PRC representative on a government level in sixty years. Although cross-Strait relations have long been the prerogative of the President, the Legislature took the extraordinary step of passing a resolution to establish the parameters of what the MAC can discuss and agree to. Although the resolution does not have the legal force of a bill, the government cannot ignore it.

Even without this complication, the halcyon days of cross-Strait breakthroughs may be over. The low hanging fruit in cross-Strait economic interactions has long been harvested and the implementation of ECFA and further advances will necessitate much trickier negotiations. Pressure has been building on Ma from the Chinese side to start talking politics, but there is little public support for that in Taiwan at this juncture. President Ma will be keen to solidify his cross-Strait legacy before he completes his tenure, but wherever he looks, conditions are unfavourable for such an outcome.

Elections Ahead

Taiwan is a fully fledged democracy where the exigencies of the election cycle play as strong a role in politics as they do elsewhere. The dynamics surrounding Ma do not augur well for a speedy route out of his current malaise. Upcoming municipal and local elections in November increase the likelihood that KMT candidates will distance themselves from an unpopular and outgoing president. These midterm elections may also clarify some questions as the 2016 campaign starts to rev up. How much damage has Ma caused the KMT? To what extent will the DPP be able to capitalize? Will incumbent New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu show his hand by not seeking reelection, which would signal his intention to run for president? Will Ma be able to bury the hatchet and give his full support to his putative successors, or at least stay hidden away to avoid further damaging them? The upcoming elections will leave some questions unanswered. How will the KMT explain Ma’s unpopularity for the purposes of its election strategy in 2016? Invoking the state of the economy and Ma’s personality will produce a very different campaign message than if the party believes that the median voter, the one who has unequivocally supported the status quo for twenty years, has been spooked by the speed and scale of Ma’s cross-Strait engagements. The DPP may perform admirably at the polls in 2014, as it often does in local elections where governance rather than national security is at stake, but we won’t know if voters are willing to exchange the KMT’s proven platform for engaging China for an unproven one that they were presented with and rejected in the presidential campaign of 2012.

The Ma era is approaching the endgame, and establishing a legacy will be impeded by the morass of his second term. Ma’s achievements in cross-Strait relations are impressive, but not irreversible. The momentum towards economic integration is formidable, and despite internecine struggles, we foresee significant continuities with Ma’s policies, particularly on cross-Strait relations, given the preferences of likely KMT presidential candidates. The DPP’s recently concluded China Policy review may have resulted in an awkward compromise between the competing demands of pragmatism and staying faithful to core preferences on Taiwan’s autonomy, but the party recognizes the need to engage China.

Ultimately, as always, the temperature of cross-Strait relations will be determined by Beijing, and the level of strategic patience the Chinese Communist Party is willing to exercise. Since Ma became President in 2008, Beijing has been patient, believing that time and trends are on its side. Even so patience will not last indefinitely, and time will tell if Xi Jinping’s robust positions on Japan and the East and South China Sea territorial disputes will be mirrored in attitudes toward Taiwan. Even if the next president maintains an identical China policy to Ma, it may not be enough to satisfy Beijing. With opposing domestic constraints and pressures from Beijing, we look forward to seeing what will emerge from the MAC’s meeting in China later this month. If anyone needs a foreign-relations boost it is President Ma, but it is hard to imagine an outcome that would have this effect.

Jonathan Sullivan is Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. Michal Thim is a PhD candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute and a research fellow at the Association for International Affairs.

Image: Flickr/Jami Su. CC BY 2.0.