Mon, May 20, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Chen's activism can now take shape

If readers will allow us a rather old-fashioned military analogy: All morning has been spent seeing to the disposition of the troops on a difficult terrain. It is now early afternoon, dusk draws near, there has been vicious skirmishing but little serious fighting and the army may not be able to remain in its positions overnight. There is a need for large-scale engagement and a decisive outcome. There can be no rout now but there still may be victory, but only if the general acts fast enough. This, in essence, is the position of Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) government at midterm.

Not for Chen British Prime Minister Tony Blair's "much done, much still to do." Chen has been dogged by an extraordinary number of problems, not least of which is that the DPP did not, until late in the presidential election campaign, expect to win. The split of the blue camp vote was a gift the party could never in its wildest dreams have expected. As a result, the party found itself taking power with neither a coherent transition strategy nor a well thought-out policy program.

Chen inherited a military and a civil service both highly politicized and in the opposition camp. The government was chronically weak in the legislature and looked upon with so much apprehension by Washington that the US' hand was quite clear in several of the -- mostly unsuitable -- picks in Chen's first Cabinet. The sheer lack of government experience within the DPP was a problem, as was the great misfortune of taking office just at the time when the shortsightedness of its predecessor in betting Taiwan's economic future exclusively on selling more and more IT to the US was becoming terribly apparent.

It has taken two years for these handicaps to be largely overcome. The legislative problem was partially redressed last December. The Bill Clinton administration was dismissed in ignominy and replaced by the far more pro-Taiwan government of George W. Bush. Chen has, after much trial and error, finally forged a team of great credibility from whom we may expect much. Even the economy is turning around -- though that probably has more to do with US Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Chen's greatest achievement during his first two years has been a negative one, in that relations with China have not become noticeably worse. China is, of course, as intransigent as ever. But, with Chen's goodwill gestures, and the shift of perspective in Washington, Taiwan is no longer branded a "troublemaker" in the US-China relationship.

But positive achievements have been few. The opening of direct links so far has come to nothing. Entry into the WTO is an achievement that really belongs to the previous KMT government. Stronger support from the US is a strategy of George W. Bush, not an achievement of Chen's.

There were some terrible mistakes, the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant debacle being the most outstanding, a policy move executed with staggering ineptness. And Chen has appeared unable so far to wean the government from its devotion to the interests of big business rather than ordinary people.

Nevertheless, we still feel that he now has the team to make some interesting changes -- if he can get public opinion behind him -- for example, increasing the business tax to provide better public services. The sad thing is that a government's four-year term usually consists of two years of activism followed by two years in which changes can begin to bear fruit before the next election. Chen has only now come to the period of activism. This means that going into the next election voters will still remain to be convinced of the efficacy of his policies. That is a severe handicap for Chen's re-election campaign. But nobody can restore to him "the years that the locust hath eaten."

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