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.


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.