President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) decision to wait almost a month before making a serious response to his party's defeat in the Dec. 3 municipal elections has left analysts confused. Either he has been scratching his head for a good four weeks, wondering quite what gloss he can put on such a clear and massive drubbing, or he is playing a longer, if riskier, game.
Chen is unused to having the full weight of popular support so obviously stacked against him. One can understand him being lost for words, too foolish to think of a quick riposte, speechless in the face of such an unprecedented thumbs down.
The elections were certainly seen as a huge vote of no confidence in a president who has failed to deliver tangible economic reform and whose party's claim to be anti-corruption has been tainted by murky goings-on at the highest levels.
Delaying any response to the defeat, at least until allegations of big business and politicians colluding in the Kaohsiung Rapid Transit Corp scandal disappear, could be an effective strategy to reclaim support for his administration.
That said, it's important to note that the Kaohsiung scandal did not anger the public because of treatment of the Thai laborers. Taiwanese are less concerned about the buying and selling of foreigners than they are about unemployment, and the Kaohsiung controversy is at the very least symptomatic of the wider economic malaise that besets the country.
In addition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power on an anti-corruption ticket but has not proved to be beyond reproach. Taiwanese are too politically astute -- and proud -- to countenance outright lies. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) may be corrupt, but at least it admits that.
On the other hand, Chen's strategy may have been to stay quiet until the traditional New Year's Day address to demonstrate his plans for the future, and so avoid harping on about the past. Instead, he played what is perhaps his strongest, and certainly oldest, card: national self-determination, sovereignty and independence. Rather than apologizing for or even admitting to mistakes, Chen is perhaps trying to re-invigorate the possibility of constitutional change next year.
Aside from his laughably desperate deployment of the stale concept of "fostering national identity" that the DPP has thus far demonstrated themselves incapable of managing, Chen is perhaps playing the longer game. The longer game is economic and one that is incredibly risky from a strategic point of view, but may yet reap huge rewards for both him and the DPP, as well as for the Taiwanese people. A rising tide floats all boats.
If Chen can deliver short-term economic reform and convince the Taiwanese people that the DPP is the only party that can protect the nation's hard-earned wealth and political freedom from the thieving cadres of the Chinese Communist Party in the medium term, then he is perhaps in a position to enjoin the public to agree to constitutional changes that would strengthen Taiwan's claim to independence.
China would be hard-pressed to respond in any meaningful way to such constitutional change next year, particularly in advance of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. It seems unlikely that China would risk an Olympic boycott and also, perhaps, economic sanctions, at a time when it would be aspiring to be one of the major players in the present geopolitical configuration.