President Ma's Last Days in Power

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Sunday May 15, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

With the coming of May, Taiwan enters the last days of President Ma Ying-jeou's governance, an eight year, two-term presidency that has run the gamut from high to low and certainly will be grist for the mill of numerous future evaluations. What will be finally said remains to be seen, but some points already stand out.

An initial analysis on Ma's term could be: "Never has so much promise produced so little." Ma won the presidency in 2008 with great promise. He received 7, 658, 724 votes or 58.45 percent--the highest ever vote count and percentage of any Taiwan election. His party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rode his coattails in that victory.

The KMT gained 81 seats and their pan-blue coalition added four to give it 85 seats in the 113-seat legislature. With the majority Ma and the KMT were primed to accomplish any and all goals and override any resistance.

However, as Ma's term draws to an end, all that has changed. Little of substance has been accomplished. This year's KMT presidential candidate, Eric Chu, received a mere 3,813,365 votes. That was a loss of nearly 4 million votes. In the legislature, the number of KMT seats dropped from a majority, 81, in 2008 to a 34 minority this year. What caused Ma's and his party's fall from grace?

Character flaws, inflated self-appreciation and misjudgments all contributed. Whether deliberately or by chance, Ma, too often, surrounded himself with sycophants and the inexperienced. It started in November 2007 when Taiwan's GDP was 5.5 percent, and Ma's advisers told him he could easily reach 6 per cent GDP; this resulted in the infamous "6-3-3" election promise, one which would dog him throughout his presidency. One pundit joked it meant 6-3-3 equals zero, which another commentator said was the final result of Ma's presidency.

Excessive self-appreciation often comes from quickly ascending the ranks in a one-party state where loyalty and orders are the prime requirement and the state hides behind the Peter Principle. One could be tempted to write a political cautionary tale here, but Ma's issues go deeper than that. There is a side of Ma that seems clueless. How can one write a cautionary tale about Ah Q the main character from Lu Xun's novella, The True Story of Ah Q? How does one tell Ah Q not to be Ah Q?

Ma's inflated ego combined with his party loyalty further are attached to his mythical "one China" vision. All this made him blind to the growing sense of Taiwanese identity. It was a similar blindness that led Chiang Kai-shek to believe that it was only a matter of time before he retook China. Chiang died in Taiwan never understanding why the KMT lost China and the trust of the Chinese in the first place.

By 2012, Ma's reputation spiraled down from the Teflon man to that of bumbler; the descent continued till his popularity bottomed at 9 percent. Later Ma's reputation recovered to 20 per cent but Ma the poseur had finally been fully exposed. He now faces the question of where to live after May 20?

For all practical purposes, Ma could go to Hong Kong, the US, or even China as a long shot, but the chances of his living in Taiwan are lost. He might be indicted for alleged crimes brought on by his hubris. Several groups including the Taiwan Association of University Professors have already given notice about their intentions and they say they have substantial evidence.

Ma has the advantage that because of continuous KMT control of the legislature, all the members of the Control Yuan are Ma appointees. However there are also a growing number of people who hope that he is hounded by the harpies of vengeance over his treatment of treatment of former president Chen Shui-bian. Ma is likely to be kept from leaving the country until justice is served.

Ma's narcissism is seen in his continued determination to try to fit square pegs into round holes. When Wang Jin-pyng did not move Ma's Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) pact with China quickly enough Ma sought to remove him from his seat and KMT membership. That failed miserably and contributed instead to Wang allowing the Sunflower movement to occupy the legislature in 2014; ECFA must now be approved item-by-item in the legislature.

The last days of Ma's administration are likely to be drama packed, but it is likely that much will be dumped on the incoming Democratic Progressive Party administration's plate. President-elect Tsai Ing-wen can expect to have an all-too-short honeymoon period.

Despite Ma's boasting that Taiwan's international position is the best it has been in decades, Taiwan's dignity as well as its economy has suffered tremendously.

Taiwan's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank rejection came as an embarrassment but not as a surprise. Why did Ma foster this false hope for so long? The Gambia switch exposed the false truce with China. Taiwanese suspects in a Kenyan telecommunications scam were sent to China for trial while suspects in a Malaysian telecommunications scam were set free by Taiwan's ineffectual justice system.

Ma and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs boasted about the Japanese fisheries agreement over the Diaoyutais Islands but a new problem over the Okinotori atoll has emerged. The list goes on and on.

All this exposure and Ma's credibility could hasten his demise or at least marginalization of the KMT. The party selected Hung Hsiu-chu—a Ma supporter—as party chairperson. A continued plunge is forecast, as KMT losses are not the result of the normal political process where various political parties take turns at being up and down. An ever-increasing Taiwanese identity has emerged, which has already made the New Party "extinct" in less than 20 years; this is something Ma could never fathom.

The final thing the Ma administration is likely to dump on the in-coming administration is the so-called "1992 Consensus." How can any nation hope to build consensus on a falsified term? Charades and facades can create stopgap measures but not long-term policy.

Fortunately, the incoming administration seems to grasp this. Its major challenge will be turning around the economy and sticking with the vague and more diplomatically acceptable term, "status quo."