What separates a great statesman from a common politician is the capability to forge reforms with strong determination and skills of political communication. The so-called “presidential legacies” are earned, not defined solely by a sitting president.
Regretfully, what Taiwanese and the international community have witnessed in the past couple of months, following President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) re-election on Jan. 14, is exactly the opposite story.
Ever since his electoral victory, Ma has pledged to create his “historical legacies” by initiating a series of aggressive, but controversial reforms, including the government’s announcement of a conditional re-opening to imports of US beef, the increase of electricity rates for all sectors to reflect soaring energy costs and to reduce losses at Taiwan Power Co, as well as a tax on capital gains on securities transactions.
Ma displayed strong determination to push forward those reforms by emphasizing the need to do them “at one time.” Local media close to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) reported that the Ma administration intends to “clear the battlefield” before the inauguration ceremony on May 20.
The idea of taking advantage of the popularity and legitimacy of a newly elected president to launch reforms is politically understandable. Even if such moves create a public backlash, at least Ma has four more years to jump over potential political hurdles and distract public dissatisfaction.
Nevertheless, as most recent public polls show, Ma’s unilateral decision to implement those reforms as early as possible runs the risk of underestimating the public backlash.
Bold initiatives require sincere communication, comprehensive persuasion and effective implementation. Aggressive policies announced and implemented without careful weigh-in of public reaction and feasibility are nothing but arrogance and egocentrism. This reflects Ma’s isolated decisionmaking style and poor leadership.
The results have been miserable. Across the political spectrum in Taiwanese society, all public polls have demonstrated a sharp decline of Ma’s approval rating over the past three months from the 51.6 percent support he garnered from voters in the January presidential election. At least three polls conducted by local television broadcaster TVBS, the Taiwan Brain Trust think tank and the Chinese-language Wealth Magazine have indicated that Ma’s disapproval rate is now hovering between a dismal 15 and 19 percent. Public support for Premier Sean Chen (陳冲) and his Cabinet reflects the same political dilemma.
What’s even worse is that in the face of overwhelming public dissatisfaction, Ma flip-flopped again on the decision of raising electricity rates — initially set for tomorrow — and replaced it with a three-stage measure. The about-face illustrated Ma’s miscalculation of public opinion from the very beginning and his failure to justify his insistence of raising the rate all at once.
The greatest enemy usually comes from the rear. Facing serious governing problems, the KMT-dominated legislature, under pressure from individual constituencies, was on a different page on issues regarding the relaxing of restrictions on US beef imports and the capital gains tax on securities transactions. After some KMT lawmakers refused to endorse the US beef motion and to place the Cabinet’s version of the capital gains tax proposal on the legislative agenda, the party and the Cabinet had no choice but to exercise party discipline in the legislative branch. It once again highlights a lack of internal coordination between the Presidential Office, the Cabinet and KMT legislators.