In his inaugural speech on Tuesday, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) extended an olive branch to Beijing. While the president talked in some detail about opportunities for cross-strait reconciliation, he showed little rhetorical interest in mending the political divide at home.
Ma therefore missed his first opportunity in his capacity as head of state to deal positively with the bitterness generated by an intense and divisive presidential race.
Ma’s victory in the March election was decisive, garnering 58.45 percent of the vote.
But the president could have shown a little more grace by reaching out to that substantial part of the electorate that rejected his campaign in favor of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairman Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) and his running mate, Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌).
His words on Tuesday, instead, were addressed to his supporters.
Referring to the last eight years under the DPP administration, Ma said: “During that difficult time, faith in politics was low, political maneuvering was high and economic security was absent.”
These were hardly the words of a statesman looking to broaden his appeal. And the whiff of hyperbole they contained will not make Ma look very credible when the complexity of Taiwan’s economic circumstances hits home in the coming months.
On his election victory, Ma said: “The people have chosen clean politics, an open economy, ethnic harmony and peaceful cross-strait relations in opening their arms to the future.”
These statements will not diminish the skepticism of the millions of people who did not vote for him. They were words delivered by Ma the presidential candidate, not Ma the leader of a country.
The degree of Ma’s criticism of the previous administration was imprudent at a ceremony that could have been a celebration of the democratic process that installed him and of the transition from the tensions of election season.
Ma must now speak as the voice of Taiwan, bridging the partisan gap whenever possible, and not merely parrot belligerent voices in the pan-blue camp, as he has grown accustomed to doing.
It was not so long ago that pundits and politicians attacked former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) for failing to act as a president for all, despite proclaiming himself to be “the people’s president.” How rapidly their tune has changed with the recovery of executive power.
Garnering support across the political spectrum is not just about fortifying one’s political base. A major task facing Ma and his administration in the first year will be to mitigate the partisan divide that has proven so obstructive in producing legislation of substance.
Ma’s words on Tuesday may not have been a move in that direction, but the new president and his Cabinet still have time over the next few weeks to set a more positive tone in the way they conduct their affairs. The DPP is a minority party, but its support base is considerable; an executive that runs roughshod over the differing sensibilities of those supporters would find the going harder than expected.