The political approach of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has traditionally been one of style over substance. Nonetheless, when Ma prepared to give his first inaugural speech in 2008, he could not have asked for a better setting for change. He had won with a handsome 58.45 percent of the vote and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) controlled approximately 75 percent of the 113-seat Legislative Yuan. If he had a desire for substance, change and direction, it was a time to show it. He could be bold in his vision, plans and statements, for he had, in the minds of most, a clear mandate.
Ma did state goals, but unfortunately the desired substance was not forthcoming. For a while he had what could be called a mandate; his problem was that both he and his advisers misinterpreted and misread what exactly that mandate was for. So now, four years later, as he prepares to give his second inaugural address, times have changed and the setting is reversed.
Style will always only go so far, especially at a national level, and in the past four years Ma’s time and style appear to have run their course. As Abraham Lincoln put it: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Here lies Ma’s dilemma.
As Ma faces his 2012 inauguration, dissatisfaction reigns. He has run out of ways of “fooling even some of the people some of the time.” There is no mandate this time, but rather questions and doubts. Ma won, but by little more than 1 percent. The KMT still holds a majority in the Legislative Yuan, but it lost crucial seats in the election. The People First Party, a traditional ally in the past, is no longer onboard and has joined the opposition in voting against him on several issues. Further, even members of his own party have criticized both him and his Cabinet for their lack of communication.
Still, it gets worse. Ma’s public approval rating in one recent poll had dropped to 19.5 percent and those polled stated that if an election were held now, they would support the opposition candidate and not Ma. Numerous protests are being planned for both the day of Ma’s inauguration on May 20 and the day preceding it. The Taiwan Solidarity Union has even proposed televising Ma’s inaugural speech on a large screen in Huashan 1914 Creative Park where the party will hand out symbolic eggs that viewers can throw at the president as he speaks.
So what will Ma say? He will need more than the traditional platitudes. We do not know what topics he will address, but we can suggest topics that he should avoid.
With a flagging economy, and after the debacle of his “6-3-3” promises, to invoke his recent campaign slogan of an upcoming “golden decade” would appear close to political suicide. Having seen a steady decline in income and economic performance, it is unlikely that the public will believe any more promises that prosperity lies just around the corner.
Similarly, Ma needs to be conscious of the growing sense of Taiwanese identity. In his first inaugural address, he stressed what could be viewed as veiled attempts to Sinicize Taiwan. No doubt, reflecting his views that the Republic of China has a legitimate claim to continental China vis-a-vis its outdated 1947 Constitution, Ma constantly spoke of peace and his vision of Taiwan’s Zhonghua Minzu (中華民族). Today, however, more and more people are thinking in terms of a Taiwan Minzu, a phrase that Ma would have difficulty saying.