A leader needs to act, not only talk

By Liu Shih-chung 劉世忠  / 

Wed, Jul 13, 2011 - Page 8

Leadership is a dynamic tension between where a national leader thinks his or her country must go and where the voters want it to go. Bold initiatives that leave the voters behind are not acts of leadership, but of self--indulgent arrogance. Reform-minded agendas that lack the determination and action to be realized are nothing but electoral politicking.

As a young democracy, Taiwan has experienced more internal confrontation than conciliation. Even after alternating governing parties in the past decade, the country is still driven by highly partisan polarization and the lack of domestic consensus on key issues, such as cross-strait relations and partisan reconciliation.

After beating the then--governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) by more than nearly 2.2 million votes in 2008, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) stood a better chance than his predecessor, former DPP president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), to bridge the social division and generate domestic consensus on major issues. Regretfully, Ma wasted his mandate and window of opportunity to seek national reconciliation and move forward on key political reforms during the past three years.

Former Control Yuan president and loyal Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) member Friedrich Chien (錢復) recently criticized Ma for his unrealistic attempt to become a “president for all the people.”

Chien said this attitude has led to a continued decline of Ma’s popularity in both the pan-blue and pan-green camps. However, Chien’s assessment is wrong because Ma has never tried to become a “president for all the people.” Rather, the Ma administration’s poor governance has increased its distance from the majority of Taiwanese.

Ma’s biggest weakness is that he never admits he is wrong. What is even worse is that he often shifts responsibility to others when he makes mistakes or pretends he does not know how the mistakes were made. This is the egregious problem for a national leader — dishonesty and irresponsibility.

Moreover, faced with the difficulty of generating support from his own blue camp base, as evidenced in the past legislative by-elections and local elections, the Ma government keeps blaming all the problems on the former DPP government and continues to rely on “Chen-bashing” and “DPP-bashing” to mobilize the KMT’s core supporters.

The timing of the recent indictment of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) for allegedly misusing confidential diplomatic funds during his presidency is certainly suspect, despite Ma’s immediate clarification that he did not interfere in the judicial process. Nevertheless, such a move has no doubt widened partisan and social divisions further and increased political uncertainties for the upcoming elections.

So, if Ma is not qualified to be president, does DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) possess the elements of moderation, reconciliation and action of a great leader?

Tsai unveiled her “Taiwan NEXT” campaign slogan and pledged to put the country back on the right track. Although voters are still waiting to hear a more concrete policy agenda from Tsai, the DPP presidential candidate does project a brand new direction for the country. Tsai seems to portray herself as a political leader who can take the temperature and monitor the pulse of the times in which she lives. With humility and modesty, Tsai does not mute her desire for change or compromise her ideals. Her message is to make sure her style matches the public’s mood.

After witnessing three former democratically elected presidents with egoist and populist personalities, Tsai seems to realize that she needs not limit her goals, but she must bend her knees and take smaller steps to seek greater public support.

Cautious, pragmatic and incremental are the words that describe Tsai’s unique leadership style, as displayed by her slow steps to deal with DPP’s internal factional politics and unveil a campaign platform. However, this could have both pros and cons. It depends on whether Tsai’s less-populist approach can not only stimulate pan-green supporters, but also attract more middle-of-the-road voters. The KMT has already started negative campaigns against Tsai to link her working relationship with Lee and Chen. Tsai will have to find a strategy to avoid being discredited.

A smart Taiwanese political leader will have realized that the national mood has changed. Exhausted by partisan disputes and extremism regarding the unification/independence dichotomy, the country wants its politicians to get together and compromise. Individual interest groups also want presidential candidates to come up with feasible policies to address their grievances.

Taiwan’s next president should keep in mind that a politician does not just need public support to win elections: He or she needs it to govern.

Effective leadership is demonstrated by “action,” not by “image.”

Liu Shih-chung is a research fellow at the Taipei-based Taiwan Brain Trust.