While Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) delivered a knowledgeable but reserved performance in Sunday’s economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) debate, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) sought to reassure voters that the proposed trade pact with China would benefit Taiwan’s struggling economy, commentators said.
The debate, which was moderated by Public Television Service (PTS) news anchor Huang Ming-ming (黃明明), was the result from days of negotiations between the Presidential Office and the DPP.
During the 150-minute debate, Ma and Tsai covered everything from free-trade pacts to the economy and China’s political ambitions in the first high-level specialized debate on a government policy.
Former DPP legislator and party strategist Julian Kuo (郭正亮) said that the two tackled the issues differently, with Tsai focusing on expressing her party’s concerns over an ECFA while Ma took a more populist approach
“My impression was that Tsai tried to be like a teacher while Ma was a bit overly politicized and did not deal with some of the issues at face value,” Kuo said.
“Perhaps we thought too highly of the president, we thought that he would use this opportunity to give both us and the public some substantive answers,” Kuo said.
Polls released in the run-up to the debate showed up to three out of four people still expressing confusion over the content of the proposed ECFA.
Opposition parties have blasted Ma’s administration over concerns that government negotiators have been covering up the agreement’s content, saying that they have so far refused to release a list of goods and services proposed by China that would be subject to immediate tariff exemptions.
“[Tsai understood] that the point of the debate was to let the public understand more about the ECFA and clear up some of the concerns raised. In this regard she succeeded,” DPP Legislator Lee Chun-yee (李俊毅) said.
Ahead of the debate, there was speculation on whether Ma would be able to connect with middle-class voters on the need to sign an ECFA, a segment of the population for which Ma’s opinion ratings have slid in recent months.
Former presidential adviser Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) predicted that Tsai would aim to show the pact held more disadvantages than advantages for Taiwan’s economy, while Ma would try to show that it would result in an overall gain and that it wasn’t just for political purposes.
National Policy Foundation adviser Jack Lee (李允傑) said Ma “accomplished what he set out to do.”
“I would say that Ma had a slight advantage; he was well prepared and professional. He knew what he was after and he got it,” Lee said. “Both sides asked good questions and both sides avoided addressing some questions. But what it came down to was Ma’s well-organized presentation.”
Tsai had also attempted to portray an ECFA as an ill thought-out plan made to profit some of Taiwan’s largest corporations, while Ma worked to show that the pact was the result of a grassroots movement and would benefit Taiwan’s entire supply chain.
Saying that the ECFA would be signed at the expense of white-collar workers and small and medium-sized businesses, Tsai said, “You already decided to sign the ECFA backed by the interests of a few large corporations … you only listened to maybe a few CEOs of large petrochemical companies or CEOs from the automobile industries to decide that the ECFA is absolutely essential.”
However, in a scene reminiscent of “Joe the Plumber,” who the US Republican party used as a metaphor for small business owners in the 2008 US presidential campaign, Ma said throughout the debate that even people like “Mr Lai,” the owner of a small machine tool company in Taichung, supported the agreement.
“Mr Lai expressed to me that if exports go up, everyone will benefit, but [without an ECFA] they are concerned about being marginalized and losing their competitiveness,” Ma said. “[These] people would cry after hearing you accuse them of ‘enjoying privileges’ by asking for lower tariffs from China.”
TVBS said that the use of Mr Lai to exemplify popular support was the turning point in the debate with instant polls released by the channel immediately leaning in favor of the president.
“Using some of his debate tactics, the president displayed that he had a good grasp of the issue,” Lee said.
One of the more heated exchanges came after Ma tried to paint the DPP as a party that refused to address issues of regional economic integration and sought to connect Tsai to former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
“We have to catch up to the eight years that we lost. If we do not catch up, we do not have another eight years, this explains our haste,” Ma said.
Tsai fired back, saying Ma was reckless in his haste to sign the ECFA and that his administration degraded Taiwan’s sovereignty and ignored some of China’s political ambitions toward Taiwan.
She also blasted Ma for failing to deliver on his election promises including his vow to achieve a 6 percent annual GDP growth.
The timing of the debate — in the midst of negotiations with China over the pact — added to a tense environment that was heightened by recent scuffles between the two parties’ lawmakers over some of Ma’s China policies.
Opinion polls conducted after the debate revealed mixed results but showed that support for or opposition to an ECFA had solidified along party lines.
The DPP’s polling center and the pan-green-leaning Taiwan Thinktank polled slightly in favor of Tsai, but a number of pro-blue Chinese-language dailies polled widely in favor of the president.
A Taiwan Thinktank analysis of the poll results found a pronounced split along party lines after 85 percent of pan-green voters expressed opposition towards the ECFA while 80 percent of pan-blue voters rallied in support.
“I do think that Tsai could have tried to communicate better. She tried to get through too much content and she wasn’t used to the timeframe. After all, Tsai has never run for office before,” Kuo said.
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