With presidential and legislative elections scheduled for Jan. 14, a US$7 million taxpayer-funded rock opera has become emblematic of voter discontent as the president fires ministers and revamps policies to salvage his re-election bid.
A series of blunders by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), locked in a tight race against Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), has made the government look out of touch and left it scrambling for solutions, analysts say.
Top of the list is the decision by former Council for Cultural Affairs minister Emile Sheng (盛治仁) — as the world economy faltered — to spend US$7.17 million of public money on the rock musical Dreamers (夢想家), which was performed only twice, prompting a firestorm that led last week to his resignation.
“It is difficult to justify the musical when the economy is flagging, the wealth gap keeps widening and unemployment is rising,” said Tung Chen-yuan (童振源), a political scientist at National Chengchi University.
However, it was not only Dreamers that narrowed Ma’s lead to a razor-thin margin, or no lead at all, in recent polls, as he seeks a second and final four-year term.
Ma’s administration has come under fire for policies seen as misguided in an age where the wealth gap in traditionally egalitarian Taiwan is widening. It has responded with embarrassing U-turns.
The Council of Agriculture had to scrap a plan to cancel free milk for impoverished children and add a scheme to boost subsidies for elderly farmers, amid criticism that it was not doing enough for the disadvantaged.
“[The cost] of the musical could have kept poor kids drinking milk for 21 years,” the Chinese-language China Times said in a commentary.
Ma, swept to victory in 2008 on a promise of boosting Taiwan’s economy, particularly through closer trade and tourism links with China. A sweeping trade pact was signed last year.
In contrast, Tsai’s DPP favors independence from China, but that usually crucial issue has receded as government blunders have handed ammunition to the DPP.
“Ma is in damage-control mode to ease public dissatisfaction over a perceived lack of efficiency and political sensitivity,” said Liu Bih-rong (劉必榮), a politics professor at Soochow University.
Dissatisfaction can be traced back to Typhoon Morakot in 2009, which left nearly 700 people dead or missing. Ma was criticized for what was seen as a lethargic reaction lacking empathy and his approval ratings dropped to the mid-teens.
They have recovered, but not much. Earlier this month 54 percent of 1,340 people polled by cable news channel TVBS were critical of the government’s performance, while 21 percent were satisfied and the rest had no comment.
“Most commentators think that Ma and the KMT in general are not as skillful as the DPP at handling scandals and setbacks,” said Joseph Cheng (鄭宇碩), a politics professor at the City University of Hong Kong.
The DPP has piled pressure on the government in the legislature and through the media, and was seen as at least a contributing factor behind Sheng’s resignation.
The party is now demanding that prosecutors investigate the controversial musical, claiming irregularities in the bidding process.
The KMT has so far been unable to regain control of the pre--election agenda.
“The musical dealt a heavy blow to Ma’s campaign, as reflected in opinion polls, and it remains to be seen if he can pick up momentum,” Tung said.
Last week, a TVBS poll had the candidates tied at 39 percent each, while People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) had 9 percent. The rest of the 1,320 people surveyed were undecided.
This marked a decline of three percentage points for Ma from a poll released on Oct. 26, while Tsai enjoyed an increase of 6 percentage points.
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