James Freeman Clarke, a US minister and author, once said: “A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman of the next generation.” Echoing this insight is the recent debate on whether government policies should focus on immediate gain or long-term vision.
The opposition is drafting a 10-year political program, while the government is planning to outline its “2020 national vision and strategy.” Both attempt to claim the mantle of statesman.
The reason lawmakers care so much about the difference between politicians and statesmen is that they crave everlasting victory, not just temporary electoral gain. This is a rule of politics that is as immutable as time itself.
Is our current leader a politician or a statesman? We cannot make a final verdict until the end of his term in office, but it is not difficult to conclude that this government cares most about winning elections and that such an approach has resulted in expediency, populist tendencies and a lack of political ideals and values.
One example is the question of whether Taiwan should retain or abolish capital punishment. This a very serious issue closely related to the preservation of social order and human rights. To come to a conclusion not only requires extensive public debate to forge a consensus, but also improved public education and as few executions as possible. The government also needs to come up with a comprehensive package of supplementary measures.
For years both sides of the capital punishment debate have made vociferous calls to arms and there has been no sign of the two groups moving any closer to each other.
In dealing with such a sensitive and developing public policy, a mature government would consider the concerns of each side and promote rational public dialogue. In contrast, faced with the controversy of a minister opposed to signing execution orders, President Ma Ying Jeou’s (馬英九) government only made a bad situation worse.
At first the government hesitated and avoided the issue out of concern for its human rights reputation, but after a well known TV entertainer — who had had a family member murdered — threatened a no-vote protest, the government changed its mind overnight and the justice minister was forced to resign. The new justice minister then hastily carried out four executions, raising difficult questions about how the four death row inmates in question were chosen. The government’s response drew strong criticism, accusations of political manipulation and condemnation from the EU.
Throughout this whole process, there was nothing to imply that Ma was following any kind of conviction or thought-out political view. First he appointed a justice minister who was clearly in favor of abolishing capital punishment and declined to interfere with her decision not to carry out death sentences as required by law. Then, to calm voters, he publicly praised Wang Wen-hsieh (王文燮) for developing the silencer used with rifles during executions when serving as commander-in-chief of the Combined Logistics Command during Ma’s tenure as justice minister in the mid-1990s.
Taiwan has long had clear laws stipulating the conditions required for the government to pay national compensation — including a detailed application process and rules on how compensation is paid. However, after the recent landslide on National Freeway No. 3 that resulted in the deaths of four people, Ma’s promises to “assist” victims applying for national compensation caused a backlash. This happened because such words immediately brought to mind earlier promises he made to victims of the collapses of the Fengciuming Tunnel in Nantou County, Shuangyuan Bridge on Highway 17 which connects Kaohsiung and Pingtung counties, Provincial Highway 16 during Typhoon Morakot and a makeshift road in Siaolin Village (小林) in Kaohsiung County. When the victims of those disasters applied for national compensation, they were turned down despite initial promises of compensation made by politicians.