Fri, Mar 29, 2013 - Page 8 News List

The error of personalizing politics

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將

One is often bewildered by people’s tendency, in Taiwan and elsewhere, to personalize politics. Even in democracies, such as Taiwan, critics are often tempted to blame bad policies not on the government itself, but on the leader at the top, as if one were not in a democratic system, but rather in a totalitarian country where the man or woman at the top dictates everything.

In Taiwan, every downturn, every policy blunder, is blamed on President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), as if he alone — the target recently of a sobriquet, “bumbler,” that, sadly, will not go away — were responsible for both determining and implementing policy. Beyond being unfair to Ma, and those who sat in the Presidential Office before him, this proclivity elicits a fundamental flaw in people’s appreciation of how government works, a flaw that, in most instances, stems from the critics themselves never having had the experience of working for government.

Why, besides its invidious nature, this failure to understand how governments works is ultimately detrimental to democracy will be made clear in a moment.

Let us use an example from “Mind the Gap,” a recent article published on the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute blog, which discusses the state of the Ma administration one year into its second and final term.

After listing a number of reasons why Ma’s approval ratings remain abysmally low, the author writes: “It is no single politician’s fault that such inequalities exist, but it is inexcusable to lack the ability to appreciate their severity, fail to take the lead in shaming society for allowing them to exist and bumble in proposing concrete solutions, particularly when a politician has already won re-election and will never have to run for office again.”

While obvious, many critics in Taiwan would fail to see what’s wrong with this sentence, and I do not mean the use of that unfortunate sobriquet. The author makes the mistake of personalizing government and presenting the case as if the president operates in a vacuum.

Ma has already won re-election and will never run for office again: He therefore does not care one iota about public approval or the welfare of the country’s 23 million people. He cannot run for office, but Ma, whether one likes him or not, is not alone — he is part of a political party and a government that is not only democratic, but is also made up of public servants with various levels of competence and different party affiliations.

Ma himself will not be able to run for a third term in 2016, but someone from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) will. Surely, given that Taiwan is a democracy, that candidate, along with the party that will choose him or her, cares about his or her chances of being elected.

Consequently, support levels for the KMT, and the Ma administration in general, are not something that Ma, his Cabinet and the party that he chairs take lightly. Nor should we forget that policy implementation, as noted, is carried out not only by KMT officials, but by civil servants of all stripes, many appointed by, or who served under, the previous Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, just as I, a Liberal, served a Canadian Liberal government alongside a large number of Conservatives, New Democrats and even a few, I’m pretty sure, Pequistes.

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