In a campaign, the candidate raises expectations and convinces the voters he or she can walk on water. That's what the whole effort is about. Then comes the time to deliver. But political reality shows that it's often easier to run for office than to run the office.
With a landslide victory over his challenger two years ago, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has been a well-recognized potential candidate for the presidency in 2008. Regrettably, such a presumption overlooks an increasingly growing public awareness of political leaders' performance, as well as the incorporation of a stricter code of conduct to examine politicians' words and deeds.
The city government's recent poor handling of the New Year's Eve accident in the Mass Railway Transportation which led to a woman's head injury, together with the refusal of admitting an infant girl to the municipal hospital illustrated a serious lack of internal discipline and signaled a leadership crisis for Ma and his team.
During his first term, the city government's poor handling of cracking down on the sex business, as well as police corruption has been a drag on the mayor. Despite these potential leadership problems, Ma was still able to earn the media's favor based largely on his personal charisma.
While Ma has been enjoying a consistent and high approval rate in his past three years, his teammates have been struggling with catching up to their leader in a dynamic way. But even personal charm could not obscure the dark side of the whole team. The city government's slow response to the floods caused by a series of typhoons in the past two years displayed the lack of crisis management capability. The latest public poll revealed that Ma's team obtained only 33 percent support, while Ma's approval rate dropped from 60 percent to the new low of 51 percent.
While the deserted infant girl was lying in the ICU waiting for emergency treatment, Ma was dancing with some of the pan-blue city councilors.
Statistics do speak. Public opinion prevails. Not only has Ma suffered an erosion of his personal image, his team has also become a stumbling block. Over-confidence about his sugar-coated media image of "Mr. Darling" and his failure to execute internal discipline are key factors in Ma's declining support base.
Most politicians tend to overstate the power of spin and image-building. In fact, message is more important than money. Issues are more central and powerful than images.
As Taiwan becomes more democratic, voters have become vastly better informed, more sophisticated, and increasingly critical of the government's performance. The lack of government efficiency in responding to crises and the subsequent drop in approval ratings for the city government and mayor Ma displayed exactly how fragile a politician's popularity really is.
The public now insists that a leader fulfill the promises of their platform and a vision. A capable leader must explain to the public the extent to which the leader's team can fulfill the platform they unveiled during the campaign. Instead of spending too much time molding his public image, a strong mayor must bring this perception of strength to the city's problems. What the citizens of Taipei needs now is action, responsiveness and responsibility, not complacency, blindness and a slow reaction.