Last week, former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), suggested that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) call a national affairs conference to discuss the serious pension fund and fiscal crises. The DPP adopted the suggestion, making it the party’s official position. The response from the Presidential Office was to invite opposition leaders to an informal consultation on national policy.
In light of the long-standing antagonism between the government and opposition parties, Tsai was right when she said: “Taiwan’s fiscal crisis is becoming increasingly serious and the inappropriate design of the pension system is causing the crisis to deteriorate further. Now is the time to re-establish political rationality and move beyond party biases so that we can face and resolve these problems together.”
The Presidential Office rejected Tsai’s suggestion, saying that the pension system is a policy issue that can only be handled by the Cabinet and the legislature, so there is no need to turn to external solutions.
However, the Cabinet and the legislature have shown themselves incapable of handling the resistance of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators to abolishing the year-end bonuses for retired civil servants, military personnel and public school teachers. The pension system is an issue that is much more complex and difficult, and it is not something these two institutions can easily resolve by themselves, not to mention the even bigger crisis of the nation’s fiscal deficit.
The door to dialogue between the government and the opposition has long been shut tight. However, pension system reform, the fiscal situation and the economy are issues close to the hearts of the public and they offer the best opportunity to break through the political deadlock and create an atmosphere of good will.
If this path is rejected, one wonders if the Presidential Office will ever be able to find a more appropriatemoment to reconcile with the opposition.
The Presidential Office stressed that the suggestion of a national policy consultation is an invitation by Ma to engage in dialogue with opposition leaders in his role as president. The intent, of course, is to stress his position as president, rather than agreeing to sit down with opposition leaders on an equal footing, as KMT chairman.
Furthermore, since it would be a consultation, the president would simply listen to the views of opposition leaders. Whether to accept their views or not would be entirely up to his discretion. Perhaps the president would see a political boost by meeting with opposition leaders in the Presidential Office for the first time ever, but he would be doing so without taking the political risk of facing the attacks of a multitude of opposition members.
A national affairs conference is a meeting that includes the leaders of the political opposition, academics and experts. In the past, the conclusions reached at such conferences have been submitted to the Cabinet and the legislature for approval, making them legally binding. Following such a conference, former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) initiated major political reforms, such as constitutional reform and free elections for the whole legislature. Furthermore, such a conference carries immense political significance since it can serve to build national consensus and reflects a willingness by both the government and the opposition to make contributions to the nation.
Since Ma became president, Taiwan has been in sore need of a symbol under which it can unite. A national affairs conference that places the broader national interest ahead of narrow party interests is the only thing that would be able to create unity and cohesion, and resolve the country’s major issues.
If Ma continues to haggle over the formalities of a meeting with the opposition, the legal status of a conference and media reporting, and insists on a limited political consultation, then he will miss an historic opportunity to address the nation’s problems.