The Ma Mandate That Never Was, Taiwan's Holding Pattern

  Previous  |  Next  

Friday January 20, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Most are familiar with the adage "businessmen have no country," so it came with no surprise that immediately after Ma Ying-jeou's victory (51.6 per cent of the vote) in Taiwan's 2012 presidential elections, numerous pro-China business pundits jumped up to become cheerleaders. One after another they declared that Ma's win was a clear mandate for his cross-strait policies. Let all go full steam ahead in investing and deepening business ties with China; profit allegedly waits for all. Some even went as far as to suggest establishing political ties with China as well as a means to cement these alleged profit gains. Was this the really of what Taiwan's vote said? Not by a long shot. If anything, instead of being a mandate, the vote was a call for caution; the populace was at best deciding to leave things in a holding pattern. The devil is in the details.

First let us put this in a deeper perspective. In 2008, Ma (after the election and not before) claimed that he was elected because of his platform for greater cross-strait relations with China. He got 58.4 per cent of the vote and that could be classified as a mandate. But here comes the first misread. Ma, despite his post-election claims, had been elected primarily because of his pre-election 6-3-3 economic claim. If pundits question what 6-3-3 means, or its role, they have not be following Taiwan for the past four years. Mas 2008 economic promise of 6 per cent GDP, 3 per cent unemployment and 30, 000 as a starting salary never got off the ground. Ma later changed this promise to say it would be fulfilled by 2016 and not 2012, but if one has been alert, Ma ever so slyly avoided mentioning such economics in the 2012 campaign.

Now come the more obvious questions. If Ma had a mandate of 58.4 per cent in 2008, and the percentage of his vote dropped to 51.6 (almost seven percentage points), on what grounds can one claim a mandate from a diminished thing? Ma lost over a million and a half votes from 2008 to 2012. In 2008, Ma won by 2,213,485 votes; in 2012, he won by a greatly diminished 797,561 votes. Is this what mandates are made of? Is going down hill a mandate? Whose team are the cheerleaders on? The business with China team or whose?

Look likewise at the Legislative Yuan. In 2008, Ma's party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) won 81 of the possible 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan (LY). In 2012, Ma's party won 64 seats; they lost 17 seats. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 27 seats in 2008; in 2012 they won 40 demonstrating a gain of 13 seats. The Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) running simply on the pledge of opposing two of Ma's policies, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and increased cross-strait relations that endanger Taiwan's sovereignty had no seats in 2008; in 2012 they got three seats. The People's First Party (PFP) normally an ally of the KMT purposely ran separately from the KMT this time and went from one seat to three seats. Do all of these losses for Ma's party constitute this alleged new mandate? The cheerleaders obviously do not want to look at the details.

Ma did have a victory. He won the election, but in no way can that be considered a mandate. Ma could claim a mandate in 2008, but if his policies were even half way decent, building on that mandate his vote count would have stayed even or even possibly increased. It didn't. His party had controlled 75 per cent of the seats in the LY; that was veto-overriding power of any opposition and full power to implement any and all of Ma's policies. In 2012, his party has a greatly diminished majority in the LY; it lost its veto-overriding vote. The opposition gained the advantage of being able to not only present changes to the Constitution but also to put forth recommendations to censure and recall the president. Is this a mandate for Ma and his party or a new mandate for the opposition to be a better watchdog and monitor the president and his policies?

The pro-business cheerleaders with no country of their own of course cheer on. Invest, invest, and invest. One can wonder, who pays the cheerleaders or what gain they hope to get but that may not be important to this argument. What is more important for Taiwan watchers is to look at the details. There is no mandate; the vote of 2012 was more a decision to wait and see, to go into a holding pattern. Ma's opposition, the DPP, has not only been strengthened, it is back in the game. Other changes are coming as well. The United States will have its own election in 2012 and Chinas Hu Jintao will soon step down. Taiwan has decided to wait and see.