Fri, Dec 22, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Ma is not on the home stretch yet

Many commentators believe they have already figured out who is going to win Taiwan's next presidential election.

Virtually every article that mentions the 2008 poll slips in something about the supposed inevitability that Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) will be Taiwan's next leader.

But this simple-minded assuredness that Ma's smile will win the day exposes a blissful naivete of the nature of Taiwanese politics and ignorance about what poll results from every election in the past six years have indicated.

Ma may have succeeded in trouncing his KMT rival in the chairmanship election last year and may have performed well in the Taipei mayoral elections. But none of this is indicative of how he will perform nationally.

A close examination of election results at every level since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power shows that, on a national level, support for the major parties is almost evenly split. The most recent election reinforced this data.

If -- as has happened in almost every race over the past few years -- people remain faithful to their party of choice regardless of whom that party's candidate is, then a Ma victory is far from assured.

The Ma phenomenon is a classic example of how analysts, commentators and journalists gravitate toward the simplest possible scenario and ignore the subtleties involved in more sophisticated analysis.

In that scenario, Ma is young and charismatic, has a "proven" record as a leader and holds impressive professional qualifications. He also has enviable name recognition, both locally and internationally. Ergo, to those who are unwilling -- or unable -- to delve beneath the surface, Ma is a sure bet for president in 2008.

But this scenario paints a very misleading picture of local politics. Ma is far from universally revered, even within the KMT. Many of the KMT elders -- and a surprising number of its younger members -- view Ma as a weak and indecisive leader. For example, he has come under fire from within his own ranks for not taking a more vigorous role in the campaign to oust the president.

What this signals to others within the KMT -- Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), for example -- is that they do not have to let Ma eclipse their own fortunes. Ma will undoubtedly be challenged for the KMT candidacy during the party's primaries next year. Even if he manages to thrash his opponents, he will not walk away unscarred.

Very few KMT diehards will vote for anyone other than their party's chosen candidate, regardless of who that candidate is. But with such narrow margins in voter support between the pan-blue and pan-green parties, the key to the 2008 election may well hinge on a relatively small swing vote.

What this means in practical terms is that the race is still a toss-up, and anyone who tries to sell you a story otherwise is full of hot air.

There is no question that the DPP has a tough fight ahead of it in 2008. The poll is more than a year away, and in politics a year is a long time. The scandals that are currently plaguing the party will likely continue for many months to come, and that is something any DPP candidate will have to contend with.

What one hopes is that the narrow margins necessary for an electoral victory in 2008 will drive all of the nation's political parties to embrace a more centrist, less divisive type of politicking.

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