During the three-and-a-half years since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office, relations across the Taiwan Strait have been stable, Taiwan has made some breakthroughs in its foreign relations and last year the nation’s economic growth rate reached 10.88 percent. So why does opinion poll after opinion poll show that Ma is facing an uphill battle to get re-elected?
It is not because people in Taiwan are unaware of Ma’s policy achievements, but because most people are not satisfied with them.
In a survey conducted by Global Views Monthly (遠見) in May, 54.3 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with Ma’s performance, while only 33.9 percent were satisfied. As to Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), 48.2 percent of those surveyed said they were dissatisfied with his performance and only 38.5 percent said they were satisfied.
When asked to compare Ma’s term in office with the period in which the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was in power, 30.3 percent of those surveyed felt that Ma’s performance was better, while 38.5 percent thought things had got worse and 24.6 percent said there was not much difference.
Ma’s cross-strait policies had a relatively high approval rate, with 49.9 percent of respondents taking the view that they had been successful, but this was still less than half.
In an opinion poll conducted by the TV station TVBS in February, 53 percent of Taiwanese surveyed felt that Ma’s policies were pro-China, which is 11 percent more than at the time of Ma’s inauguration. This suggests that more than half of the public may have reservations about Ma’s future policies with regards to cross-strait relations because they are worried that if Ma is re-elected, he may go on to make concessions to China on political issues.
When asked about foreign policy achievements, 43.5 percent of those surveyed thought that the Ma government’s overseas policies had been successful, but the percentage who thought they had been a failure climbed from 28.8 percent in May 2009 to 40.5 percent in May this year.
China has shown goodwill to the Ma administration by exercising restraint, for instance by consenting to let Taiwan take part in the World Health Assembly as an observer. This detente has allowed Taiwan to maintain diplomatic relations with 23 countries without having to pay for it by making huge aid donations. Nonetheless, close to half of the public seem to be unimpressed by these breakthroughs.
The area in which the Ma government has really lost a lot of points is economic performance. During his campaign in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Ma promised that he could achieve 6 percent annual economic growth, bring unemployment down to 3 percent and raise per capita GDP to US$30,000 by the end of his four years in office.
In reality, Ma has fallen well short of this “6-3-3” campaign pledge. Average economic growth over the past three years has been just 3.6 percent, while unemployment has stood at 5 percent on average and average per capita GDP at the end of last year was less than US$20,000. Although the economy grew by 10.88 percent last year, that was only possible because of a rebound from negative 1.93 percent growth in 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis.
What is even worse is that the great majority of people have not enjoyed a share of the fruits of the growth that has taken place. If all the households in the country are divided into five quintiles according to disposable household income, the income of the top 20 percent was 6.34 times that of the bottom 20 percent in 2009, second only to the 6.39 times reported in 2001. The figure for last year was 6.19 times — the third-biggest difference in history and much higher than the 5.98 times recorded in 2007. In the second quarter of this year, Taiwan had 276,128 people living in 114,437 low-income households. Both these numbers are record highs and considerably higher than the 209,945 people in 87,664 low-income households recorded in the second quarter of 2008.