While image-building is an essential element for every politician in building popularity, it must always be accompanied by hard work and the promise of reform to convince voters that he or she is to be trusted.
With a new mandate after becoming chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is perhaps Taiwan's most popular political figure.
His popularity derives largely from the overwhelming endorsement of pan-blue-camp supporters. Most believe that Ma will embrace the huge job of turning the century-old party into a younger, action-driven and "black gold"-free organization because of his reputation as a clean and moderate politician.
The question is, is the so-called "Ma era" an exaggeration of his significance? Or does it represent an effective solution to rejuvenate the KMT and forge a new Taiwanese politics based on rational and institutional competition?
Ma has had a rough start. He built a degree of internal support and boosted the KMT's flagging morale on the one hand, but has so far failed to inject a sense of purpose into or a concrete vision for the party.
Despite pledging to bring fresh air to the KMT's Central Standing Committee election, what resulted was a power struggle between Ma's team and the old guard. As the old guard in the Legislative Yuan remains influential on the committee, Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) will continue to play a pivotal role in the party's decision-making process.
Ma made a second mistake by agreeing to sign a contract to sell the building housing the party-affiliated Institute on Policy Research and Development for NT$4.3 billion (US$133 million), despite zoning restrictions and claims that this property was stolen during KMT rule.
The KMT's long-time monopoly of and transactions in illegal property and assets are a political tumor. The Democratic Progressive Party has criticized the sale as a scheme exposing "Mayor Ma's" attempt to profit as "KMT Chairman Ma," and has demanded that the KMT return the assets to the state.
Ma's decision to sell the property is inconsistent with his pledge to resolve the party-assets issue by 2008 because no sincerity or sign of reform is apparent from the move.
Although Ma has made no progress in terms of party reform, he continues to try to build popularity by showing up on entertainment programs while spurning President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) invitations to discuss domestic and cross-strait affairs.
The fact is that aside from his historic-high popularity rating, what will count will be the extent to which Ma can maintain this momentum. Without aggressive and effective action that deals with the KMT's myriad problems, Ma's soaring approval rating will not last long.
What separates a great leader from a good leader is the ability to communicate with voters in a timely and determined fashion. A great leader should not allow himself to be held back by the old guard, and should not put partisan interests above the national interest or sacrifice fundamental values for short-term popularity.
Ma's greatest challenge is to walk out of his predecessor's shadow and embrace what this society really needs. Ma will only be able to demonstrate his fitness as a presidential candidate by manifesting a new leadership style that can allow the KMT to emerge from the shadow of its authoritarian past and its churlish reaction to loss of power and instead play a positive role in bridging political and social divisions that can allow the nation to move forward.