Ma's Dilemma in his Second Inaugural Address: What to Say?

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Monday May 14, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The political life of Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou has traditionally been one of style over substance. Nonetheless, when Ma prepared to give his first inaugural speech back in 2008, he could not have asked for a better setting to change. He had won by 58.45 per cent of the vote, and his party the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) controlled approximately 75 per cent of the seats in the Legislative Yuan. If he had a desire for substance, change and direction, it was a time to show it. He could be bold in his vision, plans and statements, for he had in the minds of most a clear mandate. Ma did state goals, but unfortunately the desired substance did not come. For while he had what could be called a mandate, his problem was that both he and his advisers misinterpreted and misread what exactly that mandate was for. So now, four years later, as he prepares to give his second inaugural address, times have changed and the setting is reversed.

Style will always only go so far, especially at a national level. And in the past four years Ma's time and style appear to have run their course. As Abraham Lincoln put it, "?ou can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people, all of the time." This has created Ma's dilemma.

As Ma faces his 2012 inauguration, dissatisfaction reigns. He has run out of ways of "fooling even some of the people some of the time." There is no mandate this time, but rather questions and doubts. Ma won, but by little more than 1 per cent. His party the KMT still holds a majority in the Legislative Yuan but it lost crucial seats. The People's First Party (PFP) a traditional past ally is no longer on his side. They have already joined with the opposition party in voting against him on several issues. Further, even members of his own party, the KMT, are criticizing both him and his ministers for their lack of communication.

But it gets worse; his public approval rating in one recent poll had dropped to 19.5 per cent, in another it was as low as 15.11 percent; on his election, some 13.4 per cent polled stated that if the election were held today, they would switch and support the opposition candidate instead of Ma. Further, numerous protests are being planned for both the inauguration day and the day preceding (May 19th and 20th.) The Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) party has even gone so far to propose having a large screen of Ma giving his inaugural speech in Peace Park; they are then handing out symbolic eggs that viewers can throw and symbolically "egg" the president as he speaks. So what will Ma say? He will need more than the traditional platitudes. We do not know what topics he will address, but we can suggest topics that he should avoid.

With a flagging economy, and after the debacle of his 6-3-3 promises, to invoke his recent campaign slogan of an upcoming Golden Decade would appear to be suicide. Having watched a steady decline in income and economy, it is unlikely that Taiwan's public will believe any promises that prosperity is just around the corner.

Similarly he needs to be conscious of the growing sense of Taiwanese identity. In his first inaugural address, Ma stressed what could be viewed as veiled attempts to Sinicize Taiwan. No doubt, reflecting his views that the Republic of China (ROC) Taiwan has a legitimate claim to the continent vis-a-vis its outdated 1947 Constitution, Ma constantly spoke of peace and his vision of Taiwan's Zhonghua Minzu. Today, however more and more people are thinking in terms of a Taiwan Minzu, a phrase that Ma would have difficulty saying.

Then there is the matter of the US beef issue? Though it appears that Ma will continue to try to force this issue on the people, accepting US beef is hardly a topic for an inaugural address, and it is not a flag to rally the troops behind.

What about Taiwan's military readiness? This too is unlikely. His party has in effect repeatedly scuppered all attempts at purchasing the necessary military hardware to defend the country. What topics are left? Preaching austerity and belt-tightening may be the most practical given Taiwan's present circumstances, but would Ma have any credibility left in this matter?

Whatever way one looks at it, Ma's 2nd inaugural address is one that will be crucial in setting the tone for his next four years and it will be closely watched. He has no honeymoon period this time; he has lost much credibility. Style will not carry under these present circumstances. If he has ever had any substance and vision left in his repertoire or even bag of tricks, now would be the time to bring it out.