Analysis: Sit-in a real test of Ma's capabilities

STERN EXAM: The `anti-Chen' sit-in protest will prove to be a real challenge for Ma Ying-jeou and may end up crucial to his 2008 presidential aspirations, analysts said


Sun, Sep 03, 2006 - Page 3

He cruised into the leadership of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) a year ago on his reputation for incorruptibility and his Harvard education.

Now Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) , the odds-on favorite for president in Taiwan's 2008 election, faces one of his sternest tests yet.

Thousands of protesters are set to start an open-ended sit-in near Taipei's Presidential Office on Saturday, demanding President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) resign over a series of corruption scandals.

Ma -- who is also Taipei Mayor -- has a major dilemma.

Charged with maintaining order in his city, he must ensure demonstrators' passions don't get violent and sully his leadership credentials. In Taiwan's white-hot political climate, the event could spiral out of control.

But Ma can't suffocate the demonstration, since that would alienate his core supporters -- who back both democratic freedoms and the anti-Chen drive.

There's also the question of where Ma's true interests lie.

He's certainly no fan of Chen, who has battled allegations since April that his family and inner circle have used their proximity to him for financial gain.

But replacing Chen with Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) -- his constitutionally mandated successor -- could well undermine Ma's prospects in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections by rehabilitating the fortunes of the Democratic Progressive Party.

Chen is legally barred from running again, but the daily drumbeat of corruption allegations is lowering public enthusiasm for his party, which swept into power in 2000 on claims it would end 50 years of graft-riddled KMT rule.

Political scientist Emile Sheng (盛治仁) of Taipei's Soochow University sees the sit-in as a major test for Ma -- particularly against the backdrop of Taiwan's still-evolving democracy.

"He must not consider his own political future and popular support, and let them get in the way of deciding what's best for our democratic development," Sheng said. "If he fails to handle the situation well, the current public grievances against Chen can be dumped on him."

Ma's early attempts to limit the demonstration's hours didn't inspire much confidence.

He initially ruled against a 24-hour sit-in, but later decided to allow it.

The seesaw was reminiscent of his June decision to support a public vote on removing Chen from office. Ma had previously opposed the idea.

That effort stalled when lawmakers failed to provide the required two-thirds majority to get the issue on a ballot.

Some sit-in supporters object to what they say is Ma's soft stance on Chen's alleged corruption, a charge Ma himself vigorously denies.

Taipei University political analyst Chiang Min-chin (江岷欽) said that barring major violence, Ma will benefit from the sit-in, even if -- as expected -- it fails to topple Chen.

"Ma is the promising star in the opposition," Chiang said. "People may complain of his showing little initiative now, but as long as he shows up for only one night at the sit-in, he will quickly reclaim all his supporters."

He said Ma must come up with a new opposition strategy to confront Chen if he survives the sit-in.

"That's when his real challenge begins," Chiang said.