Sun, Dec 14, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Freeway halt deliberately ambiguous

On Thursday, Premier Yu Shyi-kun made a surprising announcement that the government would temporarily put on hold the construction of the planned Suao-Hualien Freeway. This stirred up much speculation about the timing of and the reasons for the Executive Yuan's decision and whether the freeway construction would be scrapped altogether.

However, there are reasons to believe President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) government still intends to proceed with the freeway construction, and that the delay is made in the hope of "making everyone happy by not acting in haste (事緩則圓)."

The timing of Yu's announcement was sensitive. It came the day before he gave a report in the legislature on the "New 10 Key Infrastructure Projects," of which the Suao-Hualien Freeway is a central part, and right before the construction was due to begin.

Surely, the Executive Yuan knew that this last-minute delay would create the impression of shifty policy-making, and that the opposition would seize this opportunity to say that this is a re-enactment of the construction halt to the "Fourth Nuclear Power Plant." This is not to mention that since the freeway construction was the first of the projects scheduled to begin among the "New 10 Key Infrastructure Projects," a construction halt would give a bad start to the implementation of a key policy.

Under the circumstances, what caused the Executive Yuan to make this decision? One important reason may be that the Chen government has decided that, during the last three months of the presidential campaign, it does not need the controversy and protest that are associated with virtually all major construction projects.

By now all politicians in Taiwan know that there is just no pleasing everyone when it comes to major development or constructions projects.

On the one hand, there are environmental activists. It should not be forgotten that many middle-class moderate voters in Taiwan, from whom Chen is eagerly trying to seek support in his re-election, identify with environmental protection ideals.

Moreover, Hualien County Commissioner Hsieh Shen-shan (謝深山) conceded that he had conveyed the concerns of the opponents of the freeway construction to the premier, something that many suspect played a key role in Yu's decision. This is not to mention that, reportedly, even Master Cheng Yen (證嚴法師) of the Buddhist Compassionate Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, who carries a lot of weight in Taiwanese society, has expressed concerns to the government about the freeway construction.

On the other hand, many local residents eagerly await the business opportunities and local development that will come after the freeway construction is completed.

By putting off the issue for now, the government can leave a little room for ambiguity, and delay enraging anyone until later after the election is over.

However, signs indicate that if re-elected, Chen will likely proceed with the freeway construction.

When Yu gave his report on the "New 10 Key Infrastructure Projects" in the Legislative Yuan on Friday, the Suao-Hualien Freeway remained a key part of the overall project. Yu also reiterated that the halt was simply a delay, which was intended to give the government more time to communicate with opponents of the project, and which should not be interpreted as anything final.

Moreover, while environmental protection was one of the planks of the campaign platform on which Chen was elected, Chen has learned the hard way during the three years of his presidency that many voters -- if they are asked to choose between bread on the table and preserving the environment -- will decide on the former. Under the circumstances, it is very likely that he will make pragmatic compromises accordingly.

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