China Power

Ma’s Taiwan Numbers Game

Taiwanese President Ma looks to have best his rival in Sunday’s debate. Will it matter?

As I mentioned in my entry Friday, this weekend saw a much-anticipated (indeed some have said historic) debate between Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party.

The very fact that Ma accepted an invitation to a televised debate in a non-general election year is welcome, and the consensus a day later is that he probably came out on top in the two-and-a-half-hour marathon discussing a proposed free trade deal with mainland China.

Tsai is said to have failed to offer a convincing alternative to the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, which is aimed at deepening economic links between the two countries. The ruling KMT has tried to push the idea that failure to finalize the deal would risk Taiwan getting left behind and marginalized (or becoming a ‘pariah’ in Ma’s words) especially with China having agreed free trade deals such as that with ASEAN, which went into force earlier this year.

Ma tried rather dubiously to suggest that Taiwan has already been falling behind, stating that Taiwan’s economy and trade stumbled under the 8 years of the DPP administration, which ran from 2000 to 2008. But a quick look at the GDP per capita figures during this period, for example, suggests this was not necessarily so—according to the International Monetary Fund, there was actually steady growth in Taiwan in Purchasing Power Parity terms, with the first decline actually coming in 2008-09.

Ma’s administration has seen its approval ratings in the doldrums for months now, and the roots of this unpopularity are largely in Ma’s rush to cozy up to the mainland despite his failure to create any kind of consensus for doing so. Abandoning former President Chen Shui-bian’s sometimes shrill and divisive drive for independence to be declared was welcome, but Ma nonetheless didn’t have a mandate for his romancing of the mainland despite running on a pledge to be a ‘peacemaker not a troublemaker’—his thumping election win in 2008 was in no small part down to allegations of corruption that swirled around Chen, and his platform focused on reviving the economy, not cross-Strait ties.

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Anyway, however well Ma performed Sunday (and there was certainly no knockout blow to the DPP’s credibility in the debate) it’s going to be a struggle for him to regain the dizzy heights of popularity that greeted him when he launched his administration to a corruption weary public (more than three quarters of voters approved of his performance back then). One sign of this is the failure of his numbers to recover even as the economy has started to (to cite the IMF again, Taiwan is forecast to see GDP expand 6.5 percent in 2010 and 4.8 percent in 2011, healthy figures that again perhaps belie Ma’s efforts at suggesting Taiwan’s economy is in imminent doom).