Now that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has suffered its biggest setback in local elections in the past six decades and Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) has announced his resignation, it is a no-brainer that President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) policies — ranging from cross-strait ties, the nation’s engagement with regional trade partners to many domestic issues and challenging social conditions — need to be revisited.
Over the past six years, Ma and his government have been criticized for their policies tilting toward China, with lackluster performance in stabilizing home prices, creating jobs, improving wages and narrowing the wealth gap. While the administration has often touted the benefits of inking the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China to revitalize economic growth, the KMT’s landslide defeat in the nine-in-one elections on Saturday shows that the benefits of “early harvest” items under ECFA have lost momentum and the fruits of the government’s cross-strait economic measures have not been shared with most Taiwanese.
The Ma administration had tried to solicit votes during the campaign by stressing how the KMT helped build strong economic ties with China, while warning what a disaster it would be if the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won more city and county posts. The government also sought to persuade the public of the need to keep the KMT with more local leadership seats, while chiding the DPP for not placing enough emphasis on signing free-trade agreements with China and other nations. However, the election results show that domestic issues such as housing affordability, class stratification, wage stagnation and income inequality are the dominant concerns for voters, not cross-strait ties or free-trade pacts.
While cross-strait ties are not expected to face a dramatic change overnight just because of the DPP’s overwhelming victory in the elections, chances are the government’s pace of progress in cross-strait trade deals could slow. In addition, Ma is unlikely to deliver any meaningful China policies in his final two years in office, as he should now recognize that the public has a strong preference for better social equality and is dissatisfied with his pro-China approach — which was already embodied in the 24-day occupation of the legislature by the Sunflower movement that ended on April 1.
While Ma will need to appoint a new premier to lead the Cabinet as quickly as possible, he has to realize that the public’s demand for reforms and voters’ dissatisfaction with the government did not end when the polls closed on Saturday; they will persist until 2016. These elections were a precursor for the legislative and presidential elections two years from now.
On the other hand, the government should not forget about global economic conditions, which are critical to economic growth. While pursuing trade liberalization and securing free-trade agreements are important to prevent Taiwan from becoming marginalized, the government should proceed cautiously to avoid unfair treatment of domestic industries during negotiations.
Taiwanese do not need a government that signs free-trade agreements for the sake of signing a pact. What the public needs is a government that is capable of restructuring local industries and has pre-emptive measures ready to help domestic businesses improve their competitiveness, before hastily opening the nation’s doors.
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