Is Ma toast?

The idea that incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou could fail in his re-election bid was unthinkable half-way through his term, and unlikely until as recently as a couple of months ago. Ma entered office with a landslide victory and an unequivocal mandate to steady the ship with regards to cross-Strait relations and reinvigorate the economy. All but the most partisan DPP supporters were disillusioned with the Chen adminstration’s governance problems (not all of its own making), over-emphasis on ideological issues and, ultimately, high level corruption scandals. With a correspondingly large majority in the legislature, an untainted personal lustre, and facing an opposition in utter disarray, the KMT looked all set to resume the position it unexpectedly (and begrudgingly) gave up when Chen won the presidency in 2000. That election was lost as a direct result of infighting within the party, and scholars have observed how the KMT never gave up thinking of itself or behaving as if it was still in power. Thus the conditions in which Ma took the presidency in 2008 appeared to have re-established order ‘under heaven’ and the KMT would again reign for a long time.

So, what happened? We should first acknowledge that Ma has successfully pursued détente with China, warming relations to historically high levels. And, despite a global recession eating in to economies the world over, Taiwan has escaped relatively unscathed. However, despite his parliamentary majority, Ma’s administration is seen as having been ineffective and Ma personally weak. His major election pledges and policies (6-3-3, ECFA) have failed to deliver generalized benefits. Both the middle classes and blue and green collar workers have suffered, economic inequalities have increased, creating a potent fusion of social justice and quality of life issues. The speed and unchecked nature of Ma’s entente policies has alarmed the median voter (i.e. the one who has unequivocally supported the status quo through three decades).

Yet, still, Ma possessed an array of incumbency advantages, some common to incumbents everywhere, others exacerbated by formal and informal political structures that, despite democratization, are essentially unchanged since the KMT was last in power (indeed since it was the only party around). Furthermore, he should have benefited from the aversion to change that characterizes many electorates: Voters are generally wont to avoid change after a single term unless there is a compelling reason to do so. This is particularly so in Taiwan where voters consistently aver a preference for stability and where the KMT has long owned the ‘stability frame’ (that said, stability is also beloved of the CCP and other change-resistant regimes). These factors contributed to my long held belief, coincidentally expressed on this blog recently by Gunter Schubert, that Ma has not been sufficiently awful to make a substantial enough number of voters want to exchange him for his unproven rival and the uncertainties that a DPP government could bring.

I have changed my thinking, partly due to Ma’s utterly inept and incompetent campaign (sorry Blue readers), and partly due to Tsai’s transformation from the unsure lightweight we witnessed in the ECFA debate, to a candidate of genuine presidential bearing. Her deft (indeed Reagan-esque) response to Ma’s insinuations about Chen Shui-bian was characteristic of a candidate who has grown in confidence and stature through a level headed but effective campaign. In my opinion, the only weaknesses in her campaign are a fuzzy economic program and the nebulous notion of a ‘Taiwan Consensus’, which I cannot imagine is practicable either in its means (bipartisan political consensus) or its end (as a platform from which to engage China). Then again, on the policy front Ma isn’t doing so well either, with his Big Idea of a peace accord totally out of touch with public opinion and hastily removed from sight.

Such are the suicidal shenanigans going on in Ma’s campaign, Tsai should probably cancel all her campaign events and let Ma deliver the victory for her (more seriously, the only thing that looks like stopping Tsai’s momentum is over-confidence and a failure of the confirmed green vote to turnout). What started as a series of marginal missteps has degenerated into a full blown catastrophe. The latest instalment, an obviously instrumental, and possibly fraudulent, attempt to tie Tsai to the corruption of the Chen administration, by digging up an old consulting issue. Despite the blue friendly media that predominate in Taiwan’s mediascape, and a vast array of surrogates lining up to do the KMT’s dirty business, the Yu Chang case has backfired spectacularly. Employing such tactics has been a staple of KMT campaigns since before democratization (in local and supplementary elections), but what surprises me is the clumsiness of the execution, more reminiscent of a township or village chief than someone running for president, indeed the incumbent president.

At this point (brought up in a western democracy I was taught to revere the horse race) I should like to quote a reliable opinion poll to show just what a pickle Ma has got himself into. Alas, readers of this blog will know the difficulties associated with that. Instead, let me leave you with this thought. At this moment in time the National Chengchi University/XFuture election market has Ma trading at 28, with Tsai in the high 60s. Ultimately, it predicts a 12 point Tsai win. Lest you quickly dismiss this as a quirk of the Chengchi computers, recall that the prediction market has an exceptional track record of accurately predicting Taiwanese election outcomes (my thanks to @TimMaddog). Take all the pinches of salt you need to swallow this extraordinary bit of data, but believe that Ma is in trouble.

Mail me at jonathan.sullivan@nottingham.ac.uk, follow me on Twitter @jonlsullivan, or access my papers at http://jonlsullivan.com

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