Surrounded by cowards and sycophants, President Ma is now alone as civil society defies a state apparatus that no longer works
Maybe the unarmed school-age protesters whose limbs were smashed by riot police batons at the Executive Yuan on Sunday night would disagree with this, but President Ma Ying-jeou’s shoes must be just about the worst place in the world to be in right now.
From a president who rode in high on slogans — believed by many — that he would “save” Taiwan’s economy and create a new era of peace in the Taiwan Strait, Mr. Ma is now, like Icarus, on a downwards spiral. And it wasn’t his nemeses in the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that did it, as its many factions were too disorganized and busy fighting each other to accomplish such a feat. No. Civic groups, led by university students, did it. And for anyone who has followed social activists over the past 24 months and seen the contempt with which the Ma administration has held them, the current political crisis does not come as a surprise. In fact, it was almost inevitable.
It didn’t have to be that way. Initial bumps in the road notwithstanding (police action during ARATS chairman Chen Yunlin’s breakthrough visit to Taiwan in 2008, the mishandling of Typhon Morakot in 2009), Mr. Ma’s first term was not disastrous. His efforts to liberalize relations with China were, on the surface, beneficial, if only as they normalized ties with an economy that Taiwan cannot afford to ignore. Those were signals that, for better or worse, the international community wanted to hear if Taiwan is to have a shot at joining the regional FTA bandwagon. Ma furthermore stuck to his promise not to engage in sensitive political talks with Beijing, and for the most part, the comfortable “status quo” remained in place.
But something happened in the second term, and sadly for him, this is the one by which he will be most remembered. By surrounding himself with a Cabinet of cowards and sycophants, the president has actually succeeded in undermining democracy — not in the country just yet, and we have civil society to thank for that, but certainly within his party, where a regime of intimidation has succeeded in silencing critics. As a result, Ma, a man with a proclivity for aloofness to begin with, has grown increasingly disconnected from reality. In many ways, his word has become the law, and he relies on a close group of individuals, Premier Jiang Yi-huah among them, to keep everybody in line.
Mr. Ma’s personality doesn’t help either; his tendency to regard setbacks as a personal affront precludes the possibility of compromise, as the current standoff over the CSSTA makes perfectly clear. Ma the intransigent, outwitted by graduate students, has responded by hardening his position (and sending in police to crack down on protesters).
There is every reason to believe as well that President Ma’s administration has failed to set the agenda in cross-strait negotiations and that it is therefore forced into a reactive position, not a good spot to be in when negotiating with the Chinese. Tremendous pressure from Beijing under an impatient Xi Jinping seems to have forced Ma to accelerate the pace of things, which runs directly against public expectations and has led to the mess we’re currently in.
Over the past two years, hundreds, thousands of activists, most of them students, have helped expose Ma’s true nature and revealed the government’s abuse of the democratic mechanisms that we hold dear.
Ma, who might soon grow nostalgic for the nearly double-digit approval rating he currently enjoys, now finds himself vulnerable, alone in his high tower, surrounded by a dwindling handful of desperate yes-men. Already the courts have shown that they can act independently and against the wishes of the president on fundamental issues. As a resentful Ma becomes more authoritarian in response (and past behavior suggests that this is how he will respond), other agencies, and more importantly, people within his party — Wang Jyn-ping and Eric Chu come to mind — will distance themselves from him. The stage has been set for the next move, which will likely come from the more liberal elements within the party, who coincidentally agree with the basic ideology of the Sunflower Movement.
In the past six years the more liberal-mined elements within the KMT were cowed into silence, afraid to stand up to a relatively popular president. But electoral pressures will likely change that, and as a result they won’t allow him to sabotage the party’s image any more than he has in recent months. Mr. Ma cannot run for a third term in 2016, but someone else within his party will. And that person would like to win.