The Leveling of the Political Playing Field in Taiwan

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Friday June 20, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The November Nine-in-One elections draw near, and Ma Ying-jeou is staggering into the remaining years of his second and final term as president of Taiwan. For the past six years he has been working feverishly hard on both image and legacy. But now despite his efforts and Public Relations (PR) he faces an unexpected and unwanted result. Unknowingly, unintentionally and certainly unwillingly he has actually been helping to level the playing field between his party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Such a statement may seem too overtly contentious, for the KMT unquestionably remains the richest party in Taiwan with resources and war chests far greater than not only the DPP but even far greater than all political parties in Taiwan combined. It could be decades if not a century before this wealth gap difference would ever be wiped out. So how then is the playing field becoming more level? The reasons lay elsewhere and are multiple; but in brief they are found in how Ma has destroyed any of the remaining mythic image of capability and statesmanship that the KMT had from its past one-party state days, that and the enigmatic "duck effect." Yes, despite Ma's wishes, the times they are a-changing.

Start with the calm duck effect. What is it and how does it apply? Briefly, most people admire the peaceful image that ducks create as they smoothly sail on the surface of a lake. Their motion seems so calm, cool and effortless, at least on the surface, and there is the key. If one looks beneath the surface the ducks webbed feet are paddling furiously to keep balance and maintain speed and direction.

This duck-like image is the sought image that nations and politicians wish to create. Namely, that whatever the outside circumstances and turmoil, all seems under control and progressing on course. The image of harmony and grace under pressure reigns and politicians spend millions to engage PR agents and spin-doctors to ensure this. These agents and others are the hired ducks that must paddle furiously to keep a progressive stable image.

Such an image was originally easy for the KMT as it ran its one-party state in Taiwan from 1945—1987; in essence it controlled all (military, government and education) as well as the media. That media could gloss the KMT's deficits and embellish its achievements. If there were any dissenting voices those people soon found themselves on Green Island or worse. This was the situation that Ma was raised in and returned to from his studies in the USA in 1981. He then entered the government at a rank higher than most and could witness how the media as ducks in the service of the KMT state supported its actions with platitudes, slogans and select examples of success.

This changed of course when multiple parties and diverse media were allowed in the late eighties. These now began to legally question and challenge the KMT's interpretation of history. Nonetheless, the 40 plus years of "indoctrination" on how growth and the Taiwan Miracle were solely the gift of the KMT to the "redneck taibazi Taiwanese" was hard to overcome. This and the fact that many Taiwanese intelligentsias had been "eliminated" after 2/28 cast a mythic aura over the KMT's capabilities.

Fast forward to Ma's election to his first term as president in 2008. He was KMT but part of the "new Taiwanese;" he would draw on the KMT talent, create another economic miracle (that included China), root out corruption and set the nation on a forward course. Ma's PR team and spin-doctors had worked to preserve this image of capability despite his eight lackluster years as Mayor of Taipei. They now were up to the task of his presidency with the infamous 6-3-3 promise, followed by the coming Golden Decade and a constant barrage on how Taiwan's relations with China, the USA and the world were becoming the best they had ever been.

Voters in a democracy, especially at a national level, are not publicity machines; they vote for their expectations as well as their perceptions of what they see is best for them and the nation. True, they can be wrong in their perceptions, deceived by candidates and misled by vacuous promises, but they will not in the long run be paddling ducks for any person or party just to preserve image. They expect results.

It is in this situation that Ma's team, relying on the KMT's past mythic image, made their promises and boasts and came up short. Talent? From Vincent Siew on down they allegedly had all the economic savvy needed to carry Taiwan into the future. They were wrong.

Capability? Hadn't Ma had eight good years as Mayor of Taipei, at least to the untrained eye? Eventually the Bumbler tag would win out.

International relations? Were not things absolutely peaceful? Or was China biding its time as the fly entered its web? Unfortunately China's true colors came out when China's Taiwan Affairs Office let slip remarks that the 1.3 billion people of China will decide the fate of Taiwan.

Corruption? Instead of eliminating it, the laundry list of corrupt KMT under Ma continues to grow from Lee Chao-ching (Nantou County commissioner), Cho Po-chung (younger brother of the Changhua County commissioner), Lai Su-ju (Ma confidante and former Taipei City councilor) and Yeh Shih-wen (Taoyuan County deputy commissioner) to name a few. In brief, Ma was the best image-maker the KMT had had to continue the myth and he came up short thus leveling the playing field.

This is what the KMT party faces in the upcoming elections. Their war chests will still be useful. They can certainly outspend opponents in promotion and perhaps even "buy votes" in key areas but otherwise the duck effect is coming to the fore. What and how much will voters sacrifice to preserve Ma's image?

In the green south, there is little chance that voters will be paddling ducks for Ma's party image. In Taichung, after having three terms of Jason Hu's leadership, will voters still be content to say that all is well and on course? Or will they want a new direction?

In Sinbei City, if the growing land scandals in Taoyuan County spill over and involve Eric Chu's family, will the voters still want to be ducks in his support? And in Taipei, where a loyal blue population seems willing to be a paddling duck for anyone who is KMT, will the voters be that willing to cover for former EasyCard Corp. chairman Sean Lien? Born to KMT wealth and holding positions achieved more through family connections than personal effort, will Sean Lien be another KMT image to support?

No, all is not calm and on course for the KMT. The myth is gone and the playing field is more level. But, Ma like a one-trick pony is still casting all his hopes on China. He is mobilizing the KMT to push through the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) and a major battle is shaping up in the Legislative Yuan (LY).

The Legislative speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, has refused to be a paddling duck for Ma's image. Ma tried to remove him and failed. Ma could still get this trade agreement passed. He has the votes, but KMT legislators must be wary of the constituents in their representative areas. A Ma victory would be a Pyrrhic victory at best for the KMT. And then waiting in the wings is a different issue. The courts remain a problem in Taiwan with dinosaur judges, a double standard and two-tier justice. Ma's presidency has never washed and we are in a new Taiwan. ***

*** (As a footnote, the KMT would lose big in the 9-in-one elections in the fall. It was the beginning of the end of their domination, setting the stage for the losses in 2016.)