Given the huge differences in legislative representation between the governing and opposition parties, it was no surprise that Premier Sean Chen (陳冲) survived the vote of no confidence. However, that does not mean that the crisis is over for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) or that President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) problems are over.
The reason for the motion of no confidence was the opposition parties’ displeasure with the Cabinet’s decision to go ahead with the second stage of electricity and fuel price increases in December. Having lost confidence in the Cabinet’s ability to save the economy, the opposition wanted Chen to be replaced. Although the KMT put the electricity price increase on hold before the vote, that was not enough to assuage the opposition and dissuade them from going ahead as planned.
At first look, the attempt to oust Chen may have failed, but the big loser is the KMT.
The opposition took public complaints over the government’s economic measures to heart and aired the anger of the vast swathes of society that have hit on hard times due to economic pressures. Although KMT legislators were forced by the party whip to vote against the motion, many of them have expressed dissatisfaction with the Cabinet. Even Wang Chien-shien, the outspoken, deep-blue president of the Control Yuan, has said the attempt to oust Chen was “in line with public opinion.”
The motion of no confidence created a problem for Ma. Although international factors are an important part of the reason for Taiwan’s currently weak economy, the real reasons for the public discontent — the fuel and electricity price increases, the capital gains tax on securities transactions and the policy to register real land values — are in fact Ma’s policies, which the various ministers implement on his orders. The Cabinet has been left to handle the fallout.
However, the Cabinet spent a long time discussing the most pressing issues — inflation, unemployment and lagging exports — before presenting an unhurried plan to boost economic momentum. This follows South Korea’s plan to revive its economy by cutting taxes by US$5 billion and Japan’s monetary easing plan. By comparison, Taiwan looks like a wounded man hemorrhaging blood, whose doctors have put him on a drip instead of trying to quickly sew up the wound. We are left dumbfounded.
Ma understands that rescuing the economy is the government’s most urgent task, but the Cabinet is not doing enough to resolve the economic crisis, and this has put Ma under pressure. When the opposition parties beat him to the punch by proposing the motion of no confidence, they made it difficult for Ma to take action. The Cabinet reshuffle before the vote seemed like a response to the opposition’s demands or maybe even fear of opposition pressure. To avoid this impression, Ma was forced to first reshuffle the national security agencies, with the result that he was criticized for completely missing the point, playing the wrong card at the wrong table.
The outcome of the vote still leaves Ma with a problem. When Chen sailed through the vote of no confidence, he gained constitutional legitimacy. A rash Cabinet reshuffle now, while being the correct thing to do politically, would draw criticism based on constitutional concerns. If Ma allows the Cabinet to remain in place after Chen and his team have shown that their policies are useless and not seen as credible in the eyes of the public, both Ma and the KMT will suffer and have to pay a political price. Even a partial reshuffle that includes one or more of the officials in charge of economic policy — the ministers of economy and finance and the chairman of the Council of Economic Planning and Development — would be a slap in the face for Ma, since such changes would bring his authority and ability to maintain control of the overall situation into doubt.