Written by Ben Goren.

Analysts of Taiwanese politics are struggling to formulate answers to several related questions: Why are President Ma Ying-jeou’s domestic ratings so low? Given the reality of low ratings, how did Ma secure re-election in 2012? Having been re-elected, why did Ma proceed to lose the support of a majority of the Taiwanese public, including a significant proportion of his party’s voter base?

The reason for Ma’s re-election could be rather mundane – much as voters in the US appear to give their Presidents two full terms to complete their political programme (one term considered too short to allow substantive implementation of the political goals outlined in election platforms), in 2012 Taiwanese perhaps sought stability and continuity over change. Ma’s first term, although stymied by The Great Recession, marked with controversy over the apparently politicised trial of former President Chen, and notable for his unsympathetic handling of the aftermath of Typhoon Morakot, was otherwise relatively lacking in the kind of scandal that would have threatened his re-election.  Ma’s primary focus was on transforming cross-strait relations to lay the foundations for economic and then political dialogue with the PRC, and it seems the Taiwanese public were interested in seeing how far this detente could go and what benefits it would deliver.

In addition, although the DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen’s campaign was relatively successful, eventually gaining her a larger share of the vote than former DPP President Chen was elected on, questions about the DPP’s vague China policies, veiled warnings about Tsai from US officials, the announcement of Taiwan being considered for the US visa-waiver programme just before the election, and institutionalised asymmetry in campaign finance and media partisanship favouring the KMT, were enough to secure Ma’s majority. That Ma had won but by a much smaller margin than in 2008 was an omen of a wider discontent bubbling below the surface. Despite the DPP’s success in the 2010 Municipal elections in which they gained a larger total vote share than the KMT for the first time, it was not enough for the party to capture enough of the swing voters to regain the Presidency.

A year later, it was apparent that Ma’s public support, amongst swing and even many KMT-identifying voters had largely evaporated. In March this year dissatisfaction with Ma and his Government manifest in suspicion of the Trade in Services Agreement (CSSTA), support for the 318 Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan, and opposition to the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant. Half way through his second term, Ma has become somewhat of a Lame Duck President, and local KMT chapters are glancing nervously ahead towards the November Municipal elections fearful of a widely anticipated backlash against the party. Ma’s image will likely not feature on local KMT campaign materials, the President’s dismal approval ratings seen as a liability rather than an asset. How then did Ma go from winning re-election with 51.6% of the vote to almost pariah status within his own party?

The answer perhaps lies in the Ma Administration hitching its record and reputation to cross-Strait relations and the failure of these relations to deliver promised economic benefits. More broadly, it lies in the implosion of the credibility of a number of core KMT party myths upon which the Ma Administration won re-election and justified their policies. These myths can be summarised as follows: 1) the KMT is the natural party of effective governance, 2) the KMT is the natural party of efficient economic management, 3) the ECFA agreement with China has delivered economic benefits for Taiwan, 4) relations with China are purely economic, 5) a KMT Government will not be a corrupt administration, 6) the Ma Government is not concerned with identity politics, and finally 7) President Ma will handle international relations smoothly and his cross-strait polices will create international space for Taiwan.

The first myth of KMT as the natural party of sound governance, expert administration, and technocratic efficiency was largely undone by President Ma’s poor handling of a number of national crises, such as the aftermath of Typhoon Morakot. This opened many Taiwanese eyes to the fact that their Government was largely only able to react to events, and when it did take action all too often it was too late. This was compounded by Ma’s effective revival of the KMT Party-State and his habit of surrounding himself with those agreeable to him, leading to accusations of insularity and a lack of connection with the lived experiences of ordinary Taiwanese.

Furthermore, the Government’s response to crises and its pattern of initially standing firm, then appearing to concede the argument, then repackaging their response to provide the appearance of standing with majority public opinion without substantively changing course (see Ma’s recent handling of the issue of the 4th Nuclear Power Plant), has induced a deep cynicism in the public that has undermined trust in Ma, the KMT, and the institutions of State. In response, opposition and public calls for constitutional and electoral reform, seemingly dormant issues following the last major changes in 2005, have re-emerged, born out of frustration at Government refusal to countenance the idea that it has not performed to public expectations (a high bar it had set for itself) and its insistence that it has the authority conferred by its electoral mandate to implement its policy programme regardless of public opinion.

Second, the myth of the KMT as the natural party of solid economic stewardship was exposed by the Ma administration’s lack of answers to The Great Recession, the worst effects of which hit Taiwan as the Ma Administration began. Previously many Taiwanese genuinely believed that the so called ‘Golden Age’ of economic growth and development from the 60s to 80s was a result of the vision and planning of the KMT. The KMT took great pains to own that success and hounded former President Chen for his poor economic record in comparison. Chen’s alleged mismanagement of the Taiwanese economy was a key theme in President Ma’s 2008 election campaign. Ma and his party made grand promises of at least 6% GDP growth per year and less than 3% unemployment, almost impossible targets absent major restructuring of the economy. Predictably, and with a lot of help from weak European and American demand, Ma not only failed to deliver, but on average the economy under his watch grew less per year than under Chen. Ma’s flagship policy of instituting a new economic Golden Decade was quickly derided for being empty rhetoric and has since largely faded into political history.

The third myth is related to the second in so far as President Ma’s belief in his ability to revive the sluggish Taiwanese economy was based on predicted benefits that Taiwan would accrue from improved cross-Strait relations and the signing of the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement (ECFA). For Ma, building stable and ever more ‘integrated’ or ‘intimate’ cross-Strait relations has been the defining legacy of his Presidency. Ma pushed very hard for ECFA, ensured that his party ratified it in the Legislative Yuan in 2010, and thereafter began claiming that it had delivered substantive economic benefits. Yet, in direct contradiction to the President’s claims, there has been little in the way of independent financial and economic analysis which supports the idea that ECFA has delivered substantive advantages for the Taiwanese economy as a whole.

Although Beijing has been active in using purchasing orders to buy the minds and influence the voting behavior of southern and poorer workers, particularly farmers and fishermen, this too has been little more than a contingent and temporary economy of subsidies to support a poorly hidden political agenda. This largely transparent strategy has failed to elicit gratitude or solidarity from Taiwanese, or significantly alter the electoral landscape in the way that Beijing or KMT elites had hoped it would.  Instead, there is growing sense that closer economic integration with China via agreements such as ECFA is only increasing Taiwan’s economic dependence upon the PRC and in the process threatening Taiwan’s economic security and sovereignty. With the Chinese economy appearing to be gradually slowing down, Ma’s strategy of relying upon China’s economy as a means to spur domestic growth has come under sustained criticism for being out of step with economic trends.  The protests over the now stalled Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) brought to the surface public discontent with the Ma Administration and KMT Legislative Caucus pushing policies without sufficient public oversight and absent any real hard evidence that the claimed benefits of them will materialise.

Following on, the Ma Administration’s argument that relations with China are purely economic, and that he would not enter into ‘political discussions’ with China, have been the fourth myth to become exposed. It is common knowledge in Taiwan that Beijing regards all interactions with Taipei as political, and especially economic relations. Admissions by various lower ranking officials that the KMT and CCP were already discussing political issues has only reinforced in many Taiwanese a sense that the two parties are collaborating, against the DPP and ultimately against continued Taiwanese de facto independence and Taiwan’s sovereign political economy.  Opposition parties have labelled this cooperation between former avowed enemies as the ‘United Front’. When Taiwanese see private meetings between KMT and CCP officials in China setting the agenda and content for negotiation of private economic agreements between semi-official Government agencies, they don’t see economic relations, but rather political machinations.

Ma’s claim of a separation of politics and economics then has thus appeared entirely disingenuous.  The credibility of this claim took a turn for the worse when Ma tried to use his party to ram the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) through the Legislative Yuan in March. This sparked a momentous and historic student occupation of the Parliament which has stalled legislative ratification of the agreement and has revealed deep public animosity for further agreements. The protestors claims that relations and agreements with China were being conducted without transparency, and their highlighting of Ma’s contempt for Taiwanese democratic institutions by treating the Parliament as a rubber stamp for his cross-strait policies, have only been reinforced by subsequent further attempts by the KMT to sneak the related legislation through after the protests have subsided.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan. The second part of this essay will be published separately.