Can any president satisfy Taiwan’s demanding voters?

One of the fundamental questions worth asking about this election is:  Why isn’t Ma Ying-jeou winning by a comfortable margin?  He may yet emerge the victor on Saturday, but most of the credible polls reported in the days and weeks prior to the black-out period suggested a race too close to call.  Yet just four years ago, Ma defeated Frank Hsieh by 17 percentage points.  Today, he runs with all the advantages of KMT incumbency and yet his lieutenants seem anxious and concerned.  Ma’s policy record as president has not diverged substantially from what he promised in 2007-2008.  His record by objective standards seems solid and defensible.  Why, then, has he evidently lost so much support?

A conventional answer to this question would stress Ma’s perceived mismanagement of the response to Typhoon Morakot, vindictive investigations of DPP figures during Ma’s presidency, egregious campaign errors such as suggesting the possibility of political negotiations with China, and the like.  Surely all of this is important, but there may be a deeper reason for Ma’s failure to maintain political traction:  Taiwan may be becoming a polity similar to Japan in that voters are unusually well-educated by comparative standards, highly-informed, wealthy, and well-traveled, but for all of these reasons also increasingly critical of their political leaders and cynical about democratic politics.  This would be more problematic for Taiwan than for Japan because of Taiwan’s unusually challenging national security situation.  If Taiwan people are becoming disenchanted with democratic politics and unwilling or unable to give steady support to political leaders of either major party, then the task of generating a consensus on how to deal with China will be substantially more difficult.  Ma would be the second president in a row either rejected outright by the Taiwan public or endorsed with reluctance and half-heartedness.

If this is the deeper reason for Taiwan’s political ennui, a key causal factor could be globalization.  Simply put, under globalization political leaders of any country quickly lose the ability to shape the living circumstances of the people who voted them into office.  Decisions affecting the welfare of citizens are made in faraway places and combine with other decisions made in other places to produce highly complex patterns difficult even to comprehend, let alone to control.  A small and extremely open country like Taiwan would be far more affected by these phenomena than most.  Add in the factor of China determined to dictate the parameters of Taiwan’s political future and it would hardly be surprising if ROC voters were to come increasingly to perceive their presidents as incapable of leading effectively.

And yet particularly among DPP supporters in this election there still seems to be substantial enthusiasm, rooted in an apparent conviction that changing the leader can make a genuine difference.  This spirit was on display Tuesday in Taichung at a rally of Tsai Ing-wen and DPP legislative candidates.  On a sunny, warm day, streets in the center of the city were thronged with cheering supporters.  Smaller groups continued the raucous festivities well into the night.  It was not quite like the gargantuan and cacophonous rallies of 2004, but did suggest that political disenchantment may still not be institutionalized in this country and that a change in leadership could rekindle political passion.  But if Tsai is elected, would she, too, be doomed to serving only one term, unable to satisfy Taiwan’s demanding voters?  If Ma wins, can he govern effectively given what will have been a very near miss?  These questions seem critical for understanding what kind of polity Taiwan is becoming and whether it can respond effectively to the existential challenge posed by rising China.

Daniel C. Lynch is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California and is a member of USC’s US-China Institute Executive Committee.