Features | Politics | East Asia

Ma Feeling the Heat

A new poll shows Taiwan President Ma Ying-jou trailing his DPP opponent. Inequality, unemployment and close ties to China are complicating his bid for re-election next year.

By Cain Nunns for

A crack team of Taiwanese paratroopers hurtled to Earth from 5,000 feet this month. Their mission was simple: land in a targeted area in front of nationalist Kuomintang President Ma Ying-jou as he received military units marking the Republic of China’s 100th anniversary.

But like most things relating to Taiwanese politics, that’s easier said than done, and by the time Ma’s look of pride had given way to bemusement, six of the team had landed safely and the remaining six were unaccounted for – scattered to the wind. A few ended up on rooftops, some landed in an elementary school a few kilometres away, and one landed on a group of onlookers outside the Presidential Office.

It was a fitting, if somewhat embarrassing metaphor for Taiwan’s fractious political landscape and the deep divisions that will likely decide the winner of January’s upcoming presidential elections.

Aside from the paratroopers, Ma must also be bemused by the polls, which have him facing the real possibility of losing in January's presidential election.

A survey conducted by Taiwan's Global Views Survey Research Center found that Democratic Progressive Party chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, a 55-year-old former vice premier who is the first female candidate for top office in any modern Chinese state, has a slight lead on Ma, by 36 percent to 35.8 percent.

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It’s a far cry from the last elections three and a half years ago, when Ma swept to power by 17 percentage points – an unheard of margin since free elections began in 1996. But that was at the death knell of the contentious Chen Shui-bien administration, which was wracked by corruption scandals and which drove US-Taiwan relations to all-time lows over Chen’s often combative stance towards China.

Since then, Ma has worked hard to thaw relations and focus on greater economic ties with its antagonist 180 kilometres across the Taiwan Strait, which it split from following Mao Zedong’s routing of Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC forces in 1949. Taipei and Beijing signed the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in June 2010, and have since ratified 15 economic, transport and tourism agreements.

But many analysts believe Ma’s cosier relationship with the mainland may hurt the incumbent with younger voters who perceive his willingness to deal with China as a sign he is bartering the island away and weakening its negotiating stance, particularly as the mainland occupies significantly greater economic and diplomatic space in the region.

This time up, Ma is also facing an opponent who has galvanized the youth vote and painted the island’s impressive economic indicators as Trojan Horses which don’t reflect the reality of the average voter. Tsai has also been effective at working Taiwan’s almost invisible dividing line running through the middle of the island by building stronger support in the traditional DPP stronghold in the south, while making inroads into the centre of the country, where most predict the election will be won. The KMT, as usual, should carry northern Taiwan and Taipei handily.  

‘Ma’s polls started to drop over competence issues and his handling of Typhoon Morakot in 2009. Since then, income disparities, job uncertainties and socio-economic issues such as increased outward investment to China when jobs for young people are scarce have also hurt,’ says DPP spokesperson Hsiao Bi-khim. ‘The KMT likes to point to its GDP growth rate, but that’s a figure driven by the rich and enjoyed by them also. The wealth disparity in Taiwan is out of hand.’

Still, on paper, many of Taiwan’s recent economic achievements are certainly impressive. GDP growth for 2010 came in at 10.88 percent, the world’s fifth highest and a solid number given the island’s reliance on high-tech exports to a slowing United States and Europe. This year, Taiwan also racked up record export figures. It enjoys a healthy trade surplus, had the world’s fifth largest foreign reserves as of the end of August, was ranked sixth in overall competitiveness by Switzerland’s International Institute for Management Development, and was named the second-best investment destination in Asia by US-based research unit Business Environment Risk Intelligence.

‘We know the most serious problem is the inequality between the poor and the rich. But this problem is everywhere. We have moved to introduce a luxury tax and property taxes to slow property prices, which have been effective over the past quarter’ says Francis Yi-hua Kan, KMT spokesperson. ‘EFCA will prove to be even more valuable down the road because it will open up new free trade agreements that were blocked before we had a China deal, such as the Singapore agreement and more agreements with other ASEAN members.’

But even when Taiwan's GDP grew and labour productivity rose 16 percent in 2010, labour costs for employers fell 11 percent, an indication that workers weren’t receiving a fair share of the gains they were helping create. Real wages have actually fallen by about 4 percent from 12 years ago, and that, coupled with soaring house prices and rising unemployment have left many first time voters in particular out in the cold.

Ma’s cause has also not been helped by People First Party Chairman James Soong’s decision to throw his presidential hat into the ring last month. Soong, a former KMT stalwart who split from the party when he lost his bid for the presidential party ticket in 2000, is likely to split the KMT vote as he did in 2000, when he handed a victory to Chen.

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‘Ma came in on a landslide because of the Chen debacle. But he’s dealing with a new adversary in Tsai, who is a much stronger candidate than anything that has been produced by the DPP,’ says Yeh-lih Wang, chair of political science at National Taiwan University. ‘While his biggest advantages are cross-strait relations and being an incumbent, that can also be a double-edge sword. Soong will also siphon off votes from the KMT. Although Soong knows he can’t win, he’s positioning himself as kingmaker in the legislature.’

But as always, the big brother looms particularly large. China, which was holding celebrations of its own to mark the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution that started with a military uprising in the Chinese city of Wuchang and led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, is widely viewed as favouring Ma. But that also doesn’t sit well with voters, who are anaemic to the idea of Beijing meddling in Taiwan’s domestic politics.

‘Tsai represents hope for the future, has solid policies and is substance over flash,’ says DPP spokesman Lin Chun-hsien. ‘The KMT says be patient. But if we can’t blame them for our problems, who can we blame? Last time I checked we were living in a democracy.’

Cain Nunns is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian and Global Post, among other publications.