Sunday’s debate between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in his capacity as chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has generally been perceived as a victory for Ma. This has then been extrapolated and interpreted in terms of a 2012 presidential race between the two adversaries. An opinion poll by a media outlet showed that Tsai would lose by more than 10 percentage points if the election were held today. The poll also showed an increase of 5 percentage points in Ma’s approval ratings.
The National Policy Foundation, a KMT think tank, even said Tsai has disqualified herself from the DPP’s presidential nomination race.
While there may be good reasons for these analyses, I feel that if the public were to decide who would be more suitable to be the next president based on who gained the upper hand in a single debate — ignoring the current administration’s poor policy execution skills — then their political IQ is clearly low.
While it is true that we are looking at Ma in a different light after this debate — in terms of his ability to expound his views and attack his opponent in ways that made it difficult for Tsai to defend herself — I feel that Ma has won only so far as argumentative technique is concerned. When Tsai raised issues that required deeper thought, such as whether an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) would allow China to contain or control Taiwan, what impact the pact may have on Taiwan’s industrial structure and wealth distribution, as well as Taiwan’s position in global trade, Ma never gave any concrete policy answers.
Those who worry about the negative impact of an ECFA found no answer in Ma’s discourse. From this point of view, Ma lost the debate.
The ECFA debate was not held with an eye to any election, and what the public wanted to hear was not slogans and election promises or political posturing. What people wanted to hear was what advantages and challenges an ECFA would bring Taiwan and what strategies the government would adopt to avert any possible negative impact. One very simple principle is that dealings between the two countries will bring both advantages and disadvantages.
Just because the government wants to sign an ECFA is not an excuse for it to mention only the advantages to win over the public while ignoring industries or people who may be negatively affected by the pact. Tsai may not possess Ma’s debating skills, but she certainly didn’t lose when it came to alerting the public to these critical issues.
The debate may have given the KMT some momentum. If the government knows how to use this, and if it takes a square look at the issues that Tsai highlighted, carefully considering a response — avoiding fluff like “doing a good job with social welfare” and tax reductions that only increase social injustice — then the debate may indeed facilitate Ma’s re-election in 2012. However, if it is satisfied with playing up this short-term victory, forgetting its failed policies, charging forward in its haste to sign an ECFA and ignoring any admonitions about the widening gap between the rich and poor in Taiwan, Ma’s re-election is not guaranteed.
Hsu Yu-fang is an associate professor and chairman of the Chinese department at National Dong Hwa University.
TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON
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