By Chris Wang.

51.6, 13 and three. Those are probably the only numbers one needs to know when examining Taiwanese politics a year or so on from President Ma Ying-jeou’s re-election in January 2012.

Ma, who won the fiercely-contested presidential election in 2012 with 51.6 percent of the votes, six percentage points ahead of his rival Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has seen his approval rating plummet to 13 percent with three years still left in his second term.

The President, who boasts a perfect 3-0 record in major elections – one for Taipei Mayor and two for the Presidency — suddenly finds himself one of the least popular politicians in Taiwan only months into his second term. Popular political talk shows on TV blast his performance on a daily basis and people poke fun at the so-called “Ma Ying-jeou jinx,” which describes how athletes and politicians have performed poorly after meeting and shaking hands with Ma.

Most analysts agree that Ma has no one to blame but himself– his unpopularity a result of his mismanagement of domestic issues and foreign policies, rather than a case of the opposition DPP doing something right.

Ironically for a President who takes pride in being a reformist within the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) — although that is debatable — Ma has been hurt by unpopular reform initiatives. First by simultaneously raising fuel and electricity prices and second by promoting a pension reform plan which categorically asked people to pay higher premiums. These well-intentioned but ill-formulated initiatives have antagonized people from all walks of life, even those who supported Ma in the past, and led to former Premier Sean Chen stepping down in addition to Ma’s poor approval ratings. Within his own party, KMT lawmakers are disgruntled with a perceived lack of communication, jeopardizing Ma’s leadership even within the KMT.

On the foreign policy front, Ma has stood by his “diplomatic truce”, avoiding any moves that could be interpreted as provocative by Beijing. However, he has apparently mismanaged issues relating to the disputed Diaoyutai Islands, known as Diaoyu in China and the Senkakus in Japan.

Sending Coast Guard vessels to escort protesters carrying People’s Republic of China (PRC) flags and providing Chinese fishing boats in the region with supplies, generated suspicion in Tokyo and Washington that Taiwan is collaborating with China in the dispute, a question that Ma has had problems explaining despite his East China Sea Initiative. By the time Ma reiterated publicly last month that Taiwan would not collaborate with China on the island dispute, it was probably too late to regain trust from Taiwan’s most important allies, Japan and the US.

Domestically, the Ma administration is trapped in an equally knotty dispute over the construction of a nuclear power plant in northern Taiwan, which has cost more than NT$300 billion in the past three decades amid widespread anti-nuclear sentiment. The administration has been unable to improve the economic situation in Taiwan and the  pension reform plans remain unresolved. Taiwan’s hopes to join the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other regional economic integration efforts are likely to be stymied by protectionism issues, the failure to upgrade the local industrial and agriculture structures and Beijing’s opposition.

This overall bleak situation explains why Ma’s approval rating has been hovering around 15 percent for the past six months and is not expected to rebound any time soon.

That seems to be also why most observers agree that the best prospect for Ma in his second term, is to work on cross-Strait relations–the one area where he has proven success is in establishing a solid working relationship with Beijing during the past five years.

However, Ma’s first step toward his presidential legacy, one which is expected to be based on landmark cross-Strait conciliation, was a failure. A peace agreement initiative submitted during his re-election campaign created panic among the electorate and was so unpopular that Ma later pledged no cross-strait initiative would proceed without a referendum. The Ministry of National Defense further discredited the peace treaty proposal and an initiative on a cross-Strait military confidence-building measure (CBM) in its Quadrennial Defense Review released this week, described the proposal as “premature” due to the lack of consensus among the Taiwanese people.

The widespread mistrust of Beijing among Taiwanese, a result of the PRC’s relentless restriction and opposition to Taiwan’s international space, will likely prevent Ma from making any bold cross-Strait proposal in the remainder of his terms.

Seemingly unable to make inroads in foreign and domestic policy, Ma’s leadership faces the further threat of being unable to maintain party harmony and lead the KMT. For Ma, being lameduck second-term President is one thing, being someone who loses the party helm would be more devastating. Ma is fighting a rearguard action to maintain influence and power within his party. KMT lawmakers’ displeasure with Ma excluding them from decision-making on major policies is an open secret. Meanwhile, aspirants for the 2016 presidential nomination, including Vice President Wu Den-yih, New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu and Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin, have been jostling for power inside the party, with Premier Jiang Yi-huah being mentioned as a possible dark horse candidate.

Ma is aiming to extend his chairmanship of the party for four more years in an election in May, despite his qualifications being questioned by several KMT members. As KMT Chairman, Ma would still be able to instruct the party’s legislative caucus and be the primary decision-maker in nominations for all elections, including the 2016 presidential race.

Many observers believe that Wu is Ma’s hand-picked candidate for the next presidential election, despite being one of the least popular KMT politicians. Various opinion polls show that Chu, who does not enjoy a strong relationship with Ma, is the most popular candidate among KMT supporters and members. It is probable that Ma will have to divert a large proportion of his energy and attention to the inner power struggle of his party for the next three years.

Regardless of the way one looks at Ma’s second term, a consensus is emerging that the President has shot himself in the foot not once, but on multiple occasions during a year in which it seemed he could not do anything right politically, economically, in foreign policy and within his own party.

Chris Wang is politics correspondent for the Taipei Times. He writes here in a personal capacity. 


  1. Clear identification of domestic reasons for Ma’s unpopularity. To focus on cross-Strait realations might indeed be his best bet, but he is seen by many in Taiwan as tainted by bungled collaboration with Beijing in that area as well and, as previous posts indicate, Beijing is not likely to get what it wants out of him in the long term. The reference to jostling and in-fighting within the KMT is interesting; this might affect cross-Strait policy by bringing in a leader whose personal policy preferences, position on the Taiwanese-Chinese identity spectrum, political nous and ability to respond to the popular mood are more attractive to the electorate. Would any of the contenders mentioned be a) more appealing o the Taiwanese electorate and/ or b) more appealing to Beijing?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *