The better part of a year is time enough to make confident predictions about the way President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) first term will end.
Ma’s persistent references to Taiwan as a newborn peacemaker suggest that the bottom line for the president is finishing his first four years with an achievement that is, at first glance, quite independent of economic instability. Peacemaking is a perfectly deliverable promise — as long as one is prepared to stretch diplomacy and goodwill beyond the outer reaches of strategic sanity.
There is little doubt that Ma will deliver on this. He has demonstrated from the beginning that he is willing to indulge China’s obsessions and look the other way as insults and threats target one half of the population and unctuousness targets the other.
As time goes on, and in the year before the presidential election in particular, we should expect to see more media oxygen devoted to trivial, financially ephemeral cross-strait relationships and initiatives.
Objections to all this have largely been limited to opposition politicians, select media outlets and a small base of independence supporters. Most people, however, seem cynical toward and exhausted by the carnival of cross-strait nonsense that hogs the airwaves, not least the tedium of semi-official, cross-strait agencies and their cryptic, unbalanced negotiations.
The tribulations of the former first family add to the confusion and offer a cathartic alternative for those who detest former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
The paradox is that the majority of people — who oppose unification — are not prepared to mobilize against attacks on national symbols and democratic structures and sentiment. It is as if the voting public have granted a large amount of space to the present government to go about its business, and considers the accelerating politicization of the judiciary and government agencies to be within the limits of acceptable political ritual. It also helps that these structures have yet to play a direct role in undermining the economic viability of ordinary Taiwanese.
This will change as the economic crisis really begins to bite. By that time, there will be no more consumer voucher handouts to distract people from a lack of hard-nosed policy and creativity.
There will only be the realization that this government does not know what to do with the economy and that it cannot rely on China to provide sweeteners for a population that is much wealthier and cannier than those who depend more directly on Beijing’s decisions.
Taiwan is better protected than most other countries from the looming economic maelstrom, but this will mean nothing to those who are losing jobs and income if they think that the government is more worried about Chinese regard than voter respect.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) may not be able to field an attractive candidate in three years’ time, but this will be of little comfort to Ma’s supporters if any more credence is lent to the theory that Ma has no idea what he is doing and is compromising the nation’s security.
That is to say, there is more to Ma’s political success than capitalizing on a flaccid DPP.
When the real economic blows begin to hit home, Ma is likely to face decisions that will pit the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) unificationists against their pragmatic colleagues. The key question is whether this will happen before the next election.