The government’s procrastination and passive attitude toward relief efforts in southern Taiwan is bringing additional suffering to victims of the disaster. The nation is in uproar and support for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) has dropped below 20 percent. Although Ma says a Cabinet reshuffle is on the cards, Presidential Office Spokesman Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) has said that Ma and Liu will not discuss the issue until next month, suggesting that Liu will stay.
If, to Ma, a reshuffle means removing a couple of ministers while keeping Liu in place, the conclusion readily follows that the rest of Ma’s term will be a long battle defending his premier.
The scale of the destruction following Typhoon Morakot, the ferocity of the criticism of the government and the apparently disorientated Ma-Liu team amount to a comprehensive political disaster that cannot be fixed by swapping a few ministers, especially when the main targets of criticism are not those ministers who have offered to fall on their swords, but Ma and Liu themselves. Unless Liu is sent packing, Ma will not be able to contain the anger; instead, he will create formidable opposition.
Ma continues to insist that the reason he did not declare a state of emergency after Morakot hit is that the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act (災害防救法) provided the government with all the authority and resources it needed to deal with the situation. The law names the premier as the convener of the Central Disaster Prevention and Protection Council; he is the one who shoulders responsibility for prevention measures and relief efforts — and who should step down in case of failure.
Following the Bajhang River (八掌溪) incident in 2000, deputy premier Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃) stepped down. The scope of the Morakot disaster is much wider than that isolated incident: Many more people have died and public discontent is much more intense. Yet the government wants to replace only a few ministers. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will never accept this, several Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lawmakers are already rumbling, and even pan-blue media outlets are certain to sneer.
Most importantly, how could the public be expected to accept such an outcome? It would be a decision that the government would regret for the rest of its days.
In trying to escape with a minor reshuffle, Ma is probably considering post-disaster reconstruction and related political issues. Liu has experience from the 921 Earthquake reconstruction effort, and this could deflect some criticism over retaining him. Ma is probably also worrying that removing Liu would set off a series of power struggles in the KMT, and that in trying to maintain the balance, he might need to fight for Liu to the bitter end.
However, Ma’s insistence that Liu stay would show total disregard for public opinion and set a new milestone for elitist arrogance.
Protecting a decision-making structure that no longer functions is a distortion of the meaning of responsible governance. The public wants a strong, able and effective leader who can lead the government and shape the Cabinet to meet new circumstances. Ma, however, is on the verge of compounding his atrocious response to the disaster with a political decision that would bring the government into general disrepute.