Now that the presidential candidates for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have been decided, the rumblings of preparations for battle can be felt. Concerned about his low popularity ratings, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has thrust himself into the front line, taking a much more prominent role in decisionmaking, beyond his constitutional remit. Meanwhile, the man who should be doing this, Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), has been momentarily sidelined.
While it is true that Ma has spearheaded many new policies of late, these have been rushed through, and not given the careful consideration they deserve. There’s no telling whether they will have their intended effect, or do his re-election bid any good.
Last month, the president personally announced that he was withdrawing his support for the construction of Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Co’s naphtha cracker, in a bid to put an end to the war of words between supporters of industrial development and environmental groups. Knowing that moderate voters tend to support environmental issues, Ma ditched his administration’s support for the economic development side of the debate. All he was concerned about was preventing his support base from shrinking and losing any more of the crucial central Taiwan vote.
Despite the financial abyss that the government is facing, Ma is going ahead with plans to increase salaries for public servants by 3 percent, and recently added raising the minimum wage to his plans. Businesses are not happy, but Ma is pushing for a raise in the third quarter. With a strengthening New Taiwan dollar cutting into many businesses’ profits, it is unlikely that companies will want to follow suit, dashing the government’s hopes of inspiring a commensurate rise in salaries in the private sector.
Then there is the question of rising oil prices. Didn’t Ma, during his 2008 presidential campaign, accuse the DPP of interfering with gas prices and not respecting market forces? Well, now he’s talking of subsidizing oil prices. So what if it will cost billions of NT dollars every year? Who cares that it goes against the principle of fairness, or the government policy of conserving energy resources? What’s more, the government is now talking of a mechanism of staggered subsidy increases.
Ma then sallied forth to drum up support among rice farmers, promising them he would increase the agreed purchasing price for rice. This will see the market price increase, but it is not yet rice harvesting season, so it will be the suppliers — not the farmers — who benefit. Caterers, restaurateurs and consumers will all fall foul of the market price increases.
It’s all about garnering votes. Any policy likely to be a vote-earner, the government jumps at. Who cares if the policy is likely to have drawbacks? So long as they won’t be too conspicuous, or indeed be noticed before the election, the government is happy to see them through now, and deal with the consequences later. Anything that is likely to cost Ma votes, or which may be controversial, has to be nipped in the bud, no matter what the department responsible for the policy has to say about it.
A perfect example of the government’s hasty approach to introducing populist policies is the fast-tracking of the luxury tax. For the vast majority, however, it’s a little bit too much like Christmas for comfort. One day of sugar-coated extravagance followed by a thud back to normality, with the electorate left to pay the consequences.