Fri, Nov 24, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Issues and strategies matter more than image

By Liu Kuan-teh 劉冠德

Taiwan's 24-hour news broadcasting seems to have created an impression among politicians that "image is everything." Leaders from both the pan-green and pan-blue camps appear to "govern by reading the news," while legislators and councilors "interpellate by following gossip and rumors."

The irony is while the media can make one a hero, it can also easily ruin one's political career.

Long regarded as the media's darling, Taipei Mayor and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) basked in his reputation as "Mr. Clean" or "the teflon politician" despite the KMT's long-time association with "black gold" politics. Nevertheless, when Ma assumed the party chairmanship in July last year, he was doomed to carry all the KMT's historical liability and yet live up to society's highest moral standard.

Recent allegations that Ma had misused his special allowance fund have cast a huge political shadow on the blue camp's presidential hope, especially in the wake of the indictment last month of first lady Wu Shu-jen(吳淑珍), and possibly President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) if not for his presidential immunity, on charges of corruption and forgery.

There are admittedly historical and structural problems in the use of the special fund for ministers, mayors, county commissioners and some 6,500 local chiefs. But since Prosecutor Eric Chen (陳瑞仁) upheld the highest standard when he decided to indict Wu and implicate the president, it would be difficult for Ma to escape the same charges given that his staffer has admitted to collecting fake receipts to claim reimbursements from the mayoral fund.

If the pan-blue camp praised Prosecutor Eric Chen's conclusion that the president and Wu inappropriately used public funds for private use, the same criteria should apply to Ma's handling of the mayoral allowance.

Ma has been busy conducting a spin campaign to contain the damage from the scandal. He apologized to the nation for what he called "administrative defects" in the handling of the fund and donated part of the allowance that he had received over his two terms as mayor to charity -- all the while emphasizing that he had nothing to do with his staffer's personal misconduct.

The pro-unification media has released several surveys showing a drop in Ma's approval rating. They contend, however, that the poll also showed that the majority of the public still believed the mayor was innocent.

Ma's poor handling of the biggest crisis in his career demonstrates a common defect among local politicians. Most political leaders are so focused on building up their image that they overlook the importance of transcending their campaign message by incorporating stronger discipline.

A majority of local politicians also tend to overstate the power of money, spin, scandal, voter self-interest and image. Ma should keep in mind, however, that those who live by the image shall die by the image. Issues are more important than image, and strategy matters more than tactics.

On the eve of his stepping down as Taipei mayor, Ma will only be remembered for his failure to execute internal reforms within the KMT. The pan-blue legislators' continued boycott of vital bills such as the arms procurement budget, sunshine laws and legislation to deal with stolen party assets, as well as their filibuster of the Control Yuan nominees have all contributed to the erosion of Ma's popularity.

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