Guest post – Tsai Jung-hsiang on Taiwan

I am delighted to be able to devote this space to another guest post. This time, the guest blogger is Tsai Jung-hsiang (Joseph Tsai) from the National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan. Joseph is an expert on Taiwanese politics and also shares a passion for semi-presidentialism, having published an article on sub-types of semi-presidentialism in French Politics. Here are his thoughts on recent developments in Taiwan.

Tsai Jung-hsiang

In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou won a landslide victory in the presidential election gaining almost 60% of popular vote and coming to power at a time when his party, the Kuomintang (KMT), already held three-quarters of the seats in the legislature (Legislative Yuan). Without any effective opposition in the parliament, President Ma and his government had free rein to decide policies and reforms. However, the situation soon changed. President Ma’s popularity has been declined steadily in the first two years of his term to the extent that he has now become a lame-duck president. How do we explain this puzzle?

First, the political orientation of the premier (prime minister) is equivocal. According to Taiwan’s Constitution, the premier is nominated by the president without any confirmation from the legislature. President Ma has the power to decide the premiership at will. But the paradox here is that the president needs to name a capable leader, but at the same time the premier has to avoid stealing president’s thunder. With re-election already in mind, the president chose a loyal lieutenant rather than a potential successor. When certain policies failed, the premier became the scapegoat and was forced to step down as a way of defusing the political crisis. These factors have tied the hands of the premier.

Second, crises are a good test of political leaders’ mettle. The inefficient and slow response of the government to natural disasters such as Morakot Typhoon in August 2009 meant that the public lost faith in the government. Crises such as these are difficult to predict, but when they arrive a capable government has the opportunity to engage in successful damage control. This did not happen.

Third, deputies from the ruling party openly defied the president and placed a ban on controversial beef imports from America. The president had supported this policy for diplomatic considerations. The clashes between the president and his own majority in the parliament have meant that the public has questioned President Ma’s ability to act as a successful party chairperson.

Fourth, President Ma adopted a policy of rapprochement towards China after he came to power and expected to sign an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). While such an agreement may promote more cross-Strait economic exchanges and stimulate the economy as claimed, it may also create difficulties for the agricultural sector and for the labor market because of outsourcing problems. The government has tried to reach out the people and explain the benefits of this agreement, but the whole issue is very complicated and is full of technical terms. It is a hard deal to sell to the public.

Finally, it remains to be seen what President Ma will do with the rest of his term and it may be an uphill battle for him to win reelection. It is now crucial for him to capitalize on his unified government and focus more on domestic reforms in Taiwan than on amicable relations with its large neighbor. Doing so does not guarantee the success of reelection, but it may prevent him from being a one-term president.

Tsai Jung-hsiang
Assistant professor of political science
National Chung Cheng University

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