Thu, Jul 03, 2008 - Page 8 News List

The oldest political trick in the book

By J. Michael Cole 寇謚將

Anyone, from Taiwanese voters to academics the world over, who entertained the belief that the “dark clouds” of the eight years of Democratic Progressive Party government would dissipate once the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regained power in Taiwan must be scratching their head these days, for things haven’t exactly played out as per the script.

In fact, the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration seems to have tripped at the starting block. From its amateurish handling of rising commodity prices to its aloof response to floods in the south — not to mention an economy that, rather than miraculously improving as the Ma camp had promised during the electoral campaign, has sagged faster than unleavened bread, with the TAIEX dropping about 13 percent within a month — many are starting to wonder if they may not have been had.

While it would be invidious to blame the government for such developments as the rising price of oil that are clearly beyond its control, the KMT’s failure to reassure the public and its insistence on “faith” betray an administration that does not seem to have a clear plan in mind. In fact, all its promises of a “good economy” are predicated on the prospects of better ties with China, direct cross-strait flights and an influx of Chinese tourists — all of which cannot be decoupled from a world economy that is facing churning waters and will do so for some time.

With inflation at a decade-high in China, assuming that Chinese tourists will spend so much money in Taiwan as to have an appreciable impact on Taiwan’s GDP is to buy into fantasy, while hopes that tourism will create indirect business opportunities are based on theories that may not fly when they leave the nest. Any competent economist in the KMT administration must know this, and yet the government continues to regurgitate vague promises and slogans.

Caught in the headlights, the best the administration has been able to come up with is tell Taiwanese to wait for an economic Godot. Whether this is the result of incompetence or indifference remains to be seen, but regardless, a certain sense of helplessness, if not panic, must have begun to install itself within the KMT. It does not help that the results of a poll conducted by TVBS, which certainly is not unfriendly to the KMT, showed that former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) approval rating after his first month in office in 2000 was 77 percent, Ma’s on June 20, however, was 41 percent.

But the KMT didn’t exactly do nothing.

Enter history, which often provides insights that can help explain political decisions. In fact, only precedents could help explain Taipei’s ostensibly irrational response to the Diaoyutai (釣魚台) islands incident earlier this month, whose daft handling by Taipei threatened to cause irreparable — and certainly unnecessary — damage to Taiwan’s relations with its long-time friend Japan.

The lesson is the following: When the situation becomes untenable at home and a government does not know how, or is unable, to meet the challenge, the reflex is to shift the focus elsewhere, preferably abroad in a manner that rechannels public discontent onto some external element. The Balkans in the early 1990s provide a perfect, if perhaps extreme, example of the lengths to which governments encountering trouble at home will go to ensure their political survival. Facing hyperinflation and massive public discontent, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic — a skillful political survivor if ever there was one — made recourse to the wildcard used time and again by regimes (usually fascist) in the past, especially in the dark valley of the 1930s: nationalism.

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