There is nothing unusual about holding official celebrations when a president is inaugurated, but as President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) starts his second term in office, most people feel that there is little to celebrate.
Even members of Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) are feeling ill at ease. Two weeks ago, the government originally planned to invite large numbers of party officials and supporters to a state banquet on Saturday, the eve of Ma’s inauguration, but the party was suddenly called off. Instead, the big event on Saturday was an anti-Ma protest organized by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its allies in the pan-green camp.
The notion of a lame-duck president originates from the US. Originally the phrase referred to the final days of a president’s second term in office, when the ruling and opposition parties have finished their primary elections and decided which presidential and vice presidential candidates to put forward. At such a time, public attention turns to the newly nominated candidates and their views and attitudes regarding important domestic and foreign policies, and many people start betting on the next president instead of the sitting one.
Even though the current president still retains his legally defined powers, his influence is considerably diminished. That is what a lame-duck president is generally taken to mean.
Ma’s case is a little different. Well before the end of his first term, an almost indiscernible palace coup was already brewing within the ranks of the KMT.
Certain KMT lawmakers enabled a DPP draft amendment calling for zero tolerance of leanness-enhancing agents in meat to pass in a legislative committee, defeating the Cabinet’s proposal to set “safe limits” for these drugs. Key figures in the KMT legislative caucus have also taken the lead in blocking a Cabinet proposal to introduce a capital gains tax on securities transactions. These are significant actions, and they look a lot like an attempt to overrule the Cabinet. In other countries, presidents become lame ducks at the end of their second terms, but Ma was limping even before the end of his first.
Let us briefly review how Ma has handled the three issues that have dragged his prestige down to rock bottom — US beef imports, increases in fuel and electricity prices and the capital gains tax.
While campaigning for January’s elections, Ma made a vague promise to the US that Taiwan would allow imports of ractopamine-treated US beef, but he was forced to shelve that pledge after he was re-elected. Ma could not or would not explain what kind of pressures his government was under, or the advantages and disadvantages of giving in to those pressures. Only when he could hold out no longer did he come up with a contradictory position, saying he hoped the Cabinet’s version of the law would be passed, but urging the public not to eat ractopamine-treated meat. He has been ducking and weaving all the way.
Before the presidential and legislative elections, Ma’s government held down fuel and electricity prices, but he changed his tune once the elections were over. On the one hand, he cannot let Taiwan Power Co go on making huge losses, but on the other he has failed to come up with a plan to run the company more efficiently. At first, he boldly announced that the price of electricity would be raised as far as it needed to go all at once, but later, and just as boldly, he said that it would instead be raised in three installments.