Sat, Mar 27, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Ma: Jump ship while the lifeboat is in reach

By Andy Morton

We can be grateful that not everybody has a boss like Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou's (馬英九). Ever since Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan (連戰) declared the presidential election unjust and unfair last Saturday night, Ma has worn the haunted look of a condemned prisoner.

As well he might. The mass protest outside the Presidential Office triggered by Lien's speech has put the KMT stalwart between a rock and a hard place: On one side, as governor of the capital, it's Ma's job to secure public safety; on the other hand, standing in the way of the KMT's party apparatus could lead to a confrontation the mayor is not ready for.

Exactly what kind of trouble he is in became clear when Taipei Deputy Mayor Ou Chin-der (歐晉德) addressed the protesters early Sunday morning to ask them to go home. The water bottle that bounced off Ou's bodyguard must have brought back painful memories for Ma, who was treated to an egg in the chest when he made a similar request to KMT supporters incensed by the party's showing in the 2000 presidential election.

Four years ago the protest problem was solved more directly -- police used water cannon to cool tempers and disperse the crowd.

Ma knows that the same tactic now would be disastrous for him. With his eye on the KMT's presidential nod in 2008, the mayor does not want to blast his core support down Ketagelen Boulevard live on TV.

Further, a removal of the protesters would put him at loggerheads with Lien, who is using the vocal support as a bargaining chip in the game he's playing with the country's democracy. To send this leverage home would not put Ma in his boss's good books.

So the Taipei mayor has delved into his bag of emergency powers and declared the protest legal, an act that normally would require notification a week in advance.

But despite this flexibility over the protest, in the past week Ma has seemed less like the obsequious employee Lien has leaned hard on for support over the years.

While Lien stood side by side with Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) and People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) outside the Presidential Office in the days following the election result, Ma was conspicuous by his absence, and the mayor was quick to leave the stage when Lien initially called the vote into question.

All this makes it look as if the mayor is distancing himself from the top brass, and by extension the protesters camped outside the Presidential Office. This will be put to the test in today's rally.

Ma has already said he would take part in the rally that he himself gave permission for, but it remains to be seen how visible he will be. To march arm in arm with Lien and Soong would mean he has thrown his lot in with those who are trying to circumvent democracy.

A less conspicuous presence would leave Ma with a greater number of options once the election dust has settled.

But Ma will need to show more backbone than was on display when he tried to offload his city administration's responsibility for the protesters onto the central government if he wants to lead a pan-blue offensive in 2008.

After war with China and 40 years of authoritarian rule, the KMT's structure has hardened to the consistency of concrete. For Ma to bring about real change would require nothing short of a mini-revolution that would irrevocably tear the party apart.

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