As a powerful typhoon approached Taiwan on Sunday, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who is seeking re-election in January, did what any true leader would do in such a situation: He called an impromptu press conference.
However, rather than discuss emergency preparedness before the storm, which had already killed eight people in the Philippines, Ma decided to take his main opponent in the election, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), to task on a question that clearly was on everybody’s mind on such a day — the so-called “1992 consensus.”
With the mudslides triggered by Typhoon Morakot in 2009, which left more than 700 people dead or missing in the south, still fresh in everyone’s mind, the matter of an alleged consensus that may or may not have been fabricated post-facto is evidently what any responsible president should be focusing on. Thankfully, it now appears that Typhoon Nanmadol will not cause such devastation, but the fact remains that on Sunday, there was no way of knowing.
Had entire villages been devastated by mudslides in the coming days, somehow the victims would have felt better knowing that Ma is a true believer in the consensus and that this was what he was focused on as the storm was closing in. However, any victims would not have departed this world with clarifications on Tsai’s “Taiwan consensus,” which Ma was seeking, because callous as it is, the DPP simply would not discuss the matter while the storm prepared to unleash its furies on Taiwan.
To be fair, Ma did go to the Central Emergency Operation Center and did, on his Facebook page, call on Taiwanese to show vigilance as the storm approached. That he still could not refrain from engaging in politics ahead of a potential emergency, however, is either a mark of callousness, as the DPP has described the move, or a sign that Ma’s advisers cannot get their priorities right. Either way, this hardly reflected well on the president and could have cost him points had something gone wrong after the storm hit.
Of course, critics could accuse the DPP of also using the incident for its political advantage. The party had earlier announced it would postpone its party congress scheduled for Saturday and the announcement of Tsai’s running mate because of the approaching storm — a not unreasonable move by any yardstick.
However, in refusing to answer Ma’s challenge, the DPP was also inevitably playing politics, especially when one of its spokespeople wondered out loud if Ma had “lost his mind.”
Who could blame it, though? By failing to get his priorities straight and focusing on politics when politics were the last thing on people’s mind, Ma was inviting criticism. That Ma’s campaign office would even allow for the press conference to be held demonstrates once again just how out of touch — well-oiled and financed though it may be — the Ma camp is with the realities and needs of Taiwanese.
In a way, this was reminiscent of Fan Heng-chih (范姮枝), former vice chairwoman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) branch in Greater Kaohsiung’s Jiaxian Township (甲仙), who was expelled from the party in 2009 after she violated a campaigning ban by organizing a gathering for candidates in an internal KMT election mere hours after Morakot had devastated parts of the south, including entire sections of the township itself.
The KMT did the right thing by expelling her, but look how quickly it abandoned those principles.
It is understandable for candidates to be on the offensive when on the campaign trail. However, there are circumstances when knowing when to stop is equally important, at least in the eyes of voters.
Sunday, as the storm approached, was such a circumstance.
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