Thursday, June 19, 2008

Will the real Ma Ying-jeou please stand up?

Adapted from
Asia Times Online
March 27, 2008

For years, the Kuomintang's (KMT) Ma Ying-jeou has been considered an heir to the presidency of Taiwan. Now that it has come true, and with a trail of contradictory campaign promises in his wake, the nation is left to decipher what kind of leader Ma will become. He already has some telling nicknames, among them "Mr Clean", "Mr Teflon" and "Mr Promises, Platitudes and Pablum."

In 2006, then-KMT Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (right) was front and centre at a rally in Taipei calling on the Democratic Progressive Party's President Chen Shui-bian to step down. To the left of Ma is James Soong, a former governor of Taiwan. Soong split from the KMT in the year 2000 in order to run his own presidential campaign against KMT rival Lien Chan. But for the 2008 presidential election, Soong had rejoined the KMT's old guard to support Ma's presidential bid.

TAIPEI - Since the day when Ma Ying-jeou was chosen as the chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) he was hailed as "a shoo-in" to win the presidential election. Even before he had declared any intention to do so, it seemed like the press had already decided that Ma had received the Mandate of Heaven and that he was pre-ordained to be the new emperor of the "Republic of China on Taiwan."

Now that that prophecy has been fulfilled at the weekend's presidential elections, the people of Taiwan - whether they call themselves Taiwanese, Chinese or aboriginal - will have two months to think about what kind of president they will get when former chairman Ma ascends to the throne.

That's because, despite the KMT's efforts (with the help of local and foreign news media) to paint Ma as a reliable, professional politician, in the last two years we have been given glimpses of the very different faces of Ma Ying-jeou. It seems that on almost every issue, every concern, Ma has at least two faces.

The foreign news media, following the lead of Taiwan's clearly pro-KMT press, have called Ma "Mr Clean" because of his efforts - while as Justice Minister in 1980s - to clean up corruption in the KMT. And even his fans have called him "Mr Teflon" because none of the accusations and charges against him ever seems to stick.

On the other hand, critics like historian Jerome Keating (author of several books on Taiwan, including Taiwan, the Struggles of a Democracy) call Ma "Mr Promises, Platitudes and Pablum" who "basks in his pseudo Mr Clean image and does his best to weasel out of any responsibility for his failings. For him, promises and platitudes are the answer for all, and the general public unfortunately is too naive to see through it."

The light in which the many faces of Ma seem most obvious is on the one issue that colors all of Taiwan's politics - the one issue that those outside Taiwan always focus on: the issue of unification with China.

Certainly this is the one thing China cares about. And ever since the democracy movement began in Taiwan, it has been the defining issue that separates "pan-green" parties like the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) (pro-independence, pro-Taiwan) from "pan-blue" parties like the KMT (pro-unification, pro-China.)

Shortly after becoming KMT chairman in mid-2005, Ma told the Associated Press that - if he became president - he would do "everything in his power" to "re-unify" Taiwan with China.

He was strongly critical of efforts by President Chen Shui-bian to "suspend" the already dormant National Unification Council and the National Unification Guidelines - drawn up by the KMT - that laid out exactly how the Taiwan should go about "re-unifying" with China.

But even as outgoing KMT chairman Lien Chan was cozying up to Beijing, and promising "One China", Ma sensed that the ground in Taiwan was shifting.

Coups - even "soft" coups and "people power" coups - were not going to win the day any more. Assassination attempts could backfire. The KMT had to accept that democracy was the battleground for getting and keeping power. And it had to accept that - on that battleground - elections were the rules of engagement. To win those elections, you needed the support of the people, including those people who increasingly were for the "status quo" of de facto independence or even those that were for formal, de jure independence.

So Ma and the KMT took out newspaper ads spelling out what they saw as the three options for Taiwan: unification, independence, status quo - suggesting that they were open to any or all of those options. When the KMT old guard gave him flak for that, Ma explained that what he meant was "independence is an option for Taiwan, but not for the KMT."

During this election, Ma changed again.

Ma was clearly the favorite in Beijing, who expected that a victorious Ma would make good on KMT promises to move forward on the unification issue.

But in a Taiwan where the people increasingly see themselves as being Taiwanese, not Chinese, being Beijing's first choice is not a good way to win the hearts and minds of the people. And certainly the protests and violent crackdowns in Tibet were seen as a cautionary tale for anyone who thought unification with China was a good idea.

So Ma went to great pains to distance himself both from Beijing, Lien Chan's promises to China, and his own promises to "do everything in [his] power" to unify Taiwan with China.

In the last days of the campaign he repeated his "Three Nos" - "no unification, no independence, no war."

Keating says that "Ma has promised everything and anything", hoping that he will hit something.

So if Ma keeps changing on this most fundamental issue, which Ma will the country get when he is sworn in as president on May 20?

Ma the Chinese nationalist dedicated to unification? Or Ma the Taiwanese democrat who will listen to the will of the people? What are we to think of Ma Ying-jeou?

On this, Keating is clear: "On my better days I call him a pretentious weasel ... At other times I have called him a chameleon on a weather vane, or a windsock; his position keeps changing depending on who he is talking to," Keating says.

"I can't keep up with him."

Stephen A Nelson
is a Canadian freelance journalist now based in Toronto but with one foot still in Taiwan. For eight years he worked as a journalist in Taiwan, including two years at the Taipei Times newspaper. He was also a broadcaster at Radio Taiwan International, where he produced Strait Talk - a weekly program about Taiwan and it's place in the world.

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