President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), fresh off an election victory in 2008, offered a vision of prosperity through closer ties with China: The economy would grow 6 percent a year, per capita income would reach US$30,000 and unemployment would be 3 percent.
Four years on and in a heated re-election campaign for next month’s presidential poll, voters are hearing a starkly different message, and tone, from the man who dramatically opened the nation’s economy to political rival China and brought relations to their best in six decades: He needs more time.
“There are goals we failed to achieve, such as the unemployment rate. I apologize for failing to achieve the goal and I understand that public frustration will be reflected in my approval rating,” Ma told a television audience in October. “However, we managed to revitalize the economy amid the global financial crisis ... give me four more years and I will do better.”
To be sure, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate’s ambitious forecasts came before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing global financial crisis severely squeezed export-led economies such as Taiwan in 2008 and 2009.
Nonetheless, Ma’s apology, repeated again at a live television debate this month, has given his main challenger, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), an opening to attack his record on the campaign trail and put Ma on the back foot.
It has also cast a spotlight on his mixed economic legacy.
The nation’s GDP grew 10.8 percent last year in a recovery from the crisis-induced 1.9 percent contraction in 2009 and the government has forecast 4.5 percent growth this year. However, per capita income hovers at about US$20,000 and unemployment has remained stubbornly above 4 percent all year.
Other measures show an increasing wealth gap, an area where Ma has come under heavy attack from the DPP, which lags Ma’s KMT by only a few percentage points in opinion polls.
Government figures show the number of families living below the poverty line increased by 10,000 to 114,000 in less than two years from the middle of 2009 to the second quarter of this year. Meanwhile, average house prices remain at 9.2 times annual household income, making housing unaffordable for many.
In a report last month, a poll commissioned by brokerage CLSA showed that only 8 percent found that their personal and family economic situation was either much better or better in the past two to three years, with 53.5 percent saying it was about the same and 19.5 percent saying it was worse.
Grumbling about the economy has been common throughout the electorate. Young new voters complain about a lack of jobs and poor wages and older voters are feeling the pinch as well.
“Before, even though work was hard, we didn’t have any livelihood pressures,” said a 64-year-old scrap metal seller in Pingtung County’s Changjhih Township (長治), who would only give his surname, Liu (劉). “Nowadays, not only do we have tough jobs, our life burden is also very heavy ... these past two to three years I feel things are a lot worse.”
Others see the economic integration with China mostly benefiting big businesses such as Taiwanese technology companies, who have poured millions into plants across China to make everything from flat-panel screens to iPads.