Friday, February 23, 2007

A Test for Ma

Local elections could push Ma Ying-jeou closer to the presidency in 2008—or cripple his leadership
Jonathan Adams
Newsweek Japan, December 13, 2006
(Untranslated draft)

Ke Tsi-hai wants his cow back.

Two years ago, Taipei City—led by its telegenic mayor and Kuomintang chairman Ma Ying-jeou—seized the animal, saying Ke had violated a city ordinance. Since then the 50-year-old Ke has kept up a media blitz to win the bovine’s release, but without success.

He’s heckled Ma at public appearances, waved anti-Ma signs at random TV press conferences, and even opened a ranch a few hours outside the city named “Ma Ying-jeou, give me back my cow.”

Now, Ke is running to become Taipei’s mayor. He stands every day at busy intersections, holding a pole weapon in the manner of Guan Yu, a heroic figure from Chinese history and literature. Standing in the rain last week during one such appearance, Ke explained the rationale behind his longshot campaign.

“The city does not have the right to impound my cow. I can get it back if I’m elected.”

Ke’s not the only one harassing Ma these days. James Soong, the once-popular head of a small splinter party allied with the KMT, lobbied for Ma to back his own mayoral campaign, but to no avail. Now he’s still in the race, sucking votes away from the KMT’s candidate, and reportedly pressuring Ma to support some of his party’s candidates in next year’s legislative elections.

And then there’s independent candidate Li Ao, who admits he has “no chance” of winning the election but just wants to “raise his voice.” Li has harshly criticized Ma, saying he’s effectively a male bimbo: good-looking, but incompetent.

“There are people trying to gain something from Ma, by showing that they can destroy his dreams for the presidency in 2008,” Said Lo Chih-cheng, a political science professor at Taipei’s Soochow University.

Call it the price of fame: as the early favorite in the 2008 presidential election, all eyes are on Ma—and the inevitable criticisms have begun to mount. Once lauded for his squeaky-clean image, he’s now been sullied by allegations that he misused mayoral funds. His small decision-making circle has frozen out people like Soong who’d like to have his ear. And he’s taken fire recently from both enemies and allies for weak leadership on a range of issues.

Saturday’s local elections—in which voters will select mayors and city councilors in Taipei and Kaohsiung—will be a key test for Ma. Can he silence his critics, lead a confident KMT into the 2008 campaign, and so defeat the pro-independence party that has held power for almost seven years?

“This election will decide who will be the candidate on both sides in 2008,” said Ger Yeong-kuang, a political science professor at National Taiwan University. “If the KMT wins both elections, Ma Ying-jeou’s leadership will be consolidated and his candidacy in 2008 is secure—no one would dare to challenge him.”

The KMT has momentum on its side. A year ago it made strong gains in local elections, even in places that were considered pro-independence strongholds.

President Chen Shui-bian has been dogged by a string of corruption scandals involving his relatives and aides. Last month his wife was charged with corruption, in a case that also implicated Chen. The scandals have taken a heavy toll on Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party: according to surveys by the election study center at National Chengchi University
support for the DPP plunged from more than 26% two years ago to 17% in June, while KMT support rose from 22% to more than 37% in the same period.

That gap is reflected in polls ahead of Saturday’s election, which showed KMT candidate Hau Lung-bing leading the pack by a wide margin in Taipei.

In the south—the base of pro-independence support—the KMT is also leading, but in a closer race. The DPP has controlled Kaohsiung for eight years, but polls last week showed KMT candidate Huang Chun-ying, a former deputy mayor of the port city, ahead of the DPP’s Chen Chu—a former labor minister who did jail time in the 1980s for her pro-democracy activism.

Don’t believe the polls, the DPP insists: they don’t capture a large number of “hidden voters” who are generally pro-independence. “Taiwan has a history of martial law and authoritarianism, so some older people are afraid to speak openly about who they’re going to support,” said Winston Dang, director of the DPP’s department of international affairs.

Moreover, Ma has now also been hit by a corruption scandal, and his approval ratings have drooped. A KMT loss in Kaohsiung would fuel more criticism of Ma’s leadership, and he’s said he will resign if charged with misusing city funds.

Meanwhile, at least one formidable opponent has begun to emerge on the pro-independence side: the no-nonsense premier Su Tseng-chang, a gruff former lawyer who helped defend Chen Chu and other pro-democracy activists in a high-profile trial in 1980. Su has an impressive resume and broad appeal, as a former DPP chairman and commissioner of both his native Pingtung County in the far south and Taipei County in the north. Amid the recent chaos of scandals and protests, Su has been quietly running the government—and focusing on vote-winning issues like reducing crime. If Ma continues to stumble, the aggressive Su could well steal away the presidency in 2008.

That would disappoint Taiwanese and foreign businesspeople, who like Ma’s strong support for closer economic links with China. That stance is echoed by the KMT’s mayoral candidates, who back direct air links with China from Taipei, and shipping links from Kaohsiung.

And China would like nothing better than to see Ma drive the pro-independence party from power just before Beijing hosts the Olympics. Ironically, though, a crushing defeat for the DPP on Saturday might make Beijing most nervous. The concern is that if backed into a corner, Chen might raise the stakes with moves to cement Taiwan’s independence, under the guise of constitutional revision.

“The mainland is on guard,” said Xu Shiquan, vice president of the National Society of Taiwan Studies in Beijing. “If Mr. Chen pushes forward his claims through so-called `constitutional reengineering’ despite warnings from the mainland, this would be serious business.”

Experts say such fears are overblown. Changing the constitution requires a three-quarters majority in the legislature, which is controlled by Chen’s political opponents. Still, the US will also be keeping a close eye on this election’s aftermath, to make sure all stays quiet in the Taiwan Strait.

“Washington is worried about Beijing overreacting to some political game being played on Taiwan,” said Richard Bush, a Taiwan expert at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, DC.

Back in Taiwan, most voters would likely respond with a collective yawn to any such antics from Chen. After being fed a daily diet of scandal, many are disillusioned with politics altogether.

Which might explain Ke Tsi-hai’s main appeal: giving voters an entertaining diversion. As drivers pass by honking their horns and giving the “thumbs-up” sign, Ke explains that his pole weapon symbolizes his fight against corruption.

Granted, with only 1% to 2% support for Ke in polls, such props aren’t likely to make much difference. But the quixotic cow-lover represents a larger challenge to Ma: if the KMT loses in Kaohsiung, Ma may have to stop ignoring his growing crowd of critics in order to keep his presidential hopes alive.

Who knows, he might even have to give back a cow.

With reporting by Ko Shu-ling

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