Friday, February 23, 2007

Lonely at the top

In Taiwan, it's hard to find anyone who will speak well of President Chen Shui-bian
Jonathan Adams
Newsweek Japan, September 27, 2007
(Untranslated draft)

Wang Shu-ping has had it with the president of Taiwan. Standing in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei under cloudy skies last Wednesday, the 50-year-old housewife explained why she voted for Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party in 2000‑and why she now has joined thousands of protesters in demanding that he step down, 20 months before the end of his term. “Chen Shui-bian was a good mayor of Taipei, so I thought he would be a good president,” said Wang, who like most of the protesters was wearing red to show her anger. “But now, I think he’s so greedy … I don’t think he loves the people, he just cares about himself. He’s not qualified to be president.”

These days, Wang’s hardly alone in feeling that way. A round-the-clock anti-Chen protest began on Sept. 9, and thousands have returned every day since‑including an estimated 320,000 who showed up for a massive rally at Taipei’s main train station on Friday night. Recent polls indicate that more than 60% of the public thinks Chen should step down, and his approval rating has dropped to a near-record low of 18%, according to a poll from Shih Hsin University earlier this month. Six years after riding office on a wave of Taiwan-first pride‑embodying the promise of a new democratic era after decades of the Kuomintang’s iron-fisted rule‑Chen has alienated most Taiwanese.

Why have so many turned against him? Chen is widely blamed for inept governance and for the island’s stagnant economy (per capita GDP declined in the first two years after Chen took power, before rising to around US$15,300 last year). And some of his own supporters fault him for not making more progress toward full independence and political reform.

But the recent protests are focused on corruption. For the past year, the public has been fed a steady diet of graft allegations against the president’s aides and family, served up almost daily by a muckraking KMT legislator and media outlets that are mostly hostile to Chen. A former Chen aide is in jail, and Chen’s son-in-law has been charged with insider trading. Chen’s wife is accused of improperly accepting gift vouchers for an upscale department store. And most recently, Chen himself was questioned over allegedly falsifying expenses from a secret diplomatic slush fund. Such accusations are reaching a critical mass. “Before, people who supported him could say, it’s not his fault, you can’t really blame the bad economy on the president, and the bad performance you can blame on the irrational opposition party,” said Emile Sheng, a spokesman for the anti-Chen sit-in. “But corruption is what’s really broken people’s confidence in him.”

In fact, there’s no evidence so far that ties Chen directly to wrongdoing. And even if true, the alleged corruption pales next to the dirty “black gold” practices common during KMT rule. Many analysts say that while the scandals have helped fuel widespread anger at Chen, the driving force behind the protests is the ongoing opposition effort to overturn the 2004 election result by any means. Chen won the last presidential election by a razor-thin margin after an assassination attempt the day before the election. To this day, many in the opposition camp‑as well as independents like Wang, the Taipei housewife‑believe that Chen rigged the shooting in order to steal the election. These people have never recognized Chen’s legitimacy and have seized on the latest scandals for more ammunition against him. Although the KMT did not launch the latest rallies, the losing vice presidential candidate from 2004 and KMT Chairman Ma Ying-jeou have made regular appearances, and most of the protesters are opposition supporters from Taipei, which tends to vote pro-KMT “blue.” “The real issue is the power struggle,” Chiu Hei-yuan, a fellow at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica in Taipei. “The [opposition camp] is trying to end the DPP’s rule as soon as possible‑they can’t even wait until 2008.”

They may have to. While most Taiwanese may have lost confidence in Chen, they’re also leery of the idea of ousting him through street protests. According to a poll last week by Era TV, only 23 percent preferred using mass movements as a way to get rid of the president, compared to 60 percent who preferred Constitutional means such as recall (one opposition-backed recall measure already failed in June). And 69 percent believed that the current anti-Chen protests would fail. For his part, Chen has insisted he will finish his term, and has denied any wrongdoing. That stubbornness is unlikely to change unless Chen is directly implicated in wrongdoing, or his own party turns against him, analysts say.

But if the protests don’t force him from office, they will help put the brakes on the Taiwan independence movement. Though Chen has actually had few realistic options for moving toward “full” independence, he often rallies support with China-bashing and stirring Taiwan-first rhetoric. With the public now more concerned about good governance and bread-and-butter issues, there’s even less of a market for such nationalism. “Any new government, either DPP or KMT, will likely slow the pace of Taiwan independence, and change track to `maintaining the status quo,’” said Philip Yang, a political science professor at National Taiwan University. With polls showing nearly 90% support some form of the `status quo’ in cross-strait relations, that’s a fail-safe strategy.

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