WHEN he was first elected in 2008, Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, offered Taiwanese high hopes that the island’s economy would open a new chapter. He promised ground-breaking agreements with China to help end Taiwan’s growing economic marginalisation. At the time, Mr Ma’s image was of a clean technocrat able to rise above the cronyism and infighting of his party, the Kuomintang (KMT). He was a welcome contrast to his fiery and pro-independence predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, now in jail for corruption.
Five years on, and despite being handily re-elected ten months ago, much has changed. In particular, popular satisfaction with Mr Ma has plummeted, to a record low of 13%, according to the TVBS Poll Centre. The country appears to agree on one thing: Mr Ma is an ineffectual bumbler.
Ordinary people do not find their livelihoods improving. Salaries have stagnated for a decade. Housing in former working-class areas on the edge of Taipei, the capital, now costs up to 40 times the average annual wage of $15,400. The number of families below the poverty line has leapt.
Exports account for 70% of GDP. So some of Taiwan’s problems are down to the dismal state of rich-world economies. Yet Mr Ma’s leadership is also to blame. He has failed to paint a more hopeful future, with sometimes hard measures needed now. Worse, he frequently tweaks policies in response to opposition or media criticism. It suggests indecisiveness.
Public anger first arose in June, when Mr Ma raised the price of government-subsidised electricity. People are also worried that a national pension scheme is on course for bankruptcy in less than two decades. Yet Mr Ma cannot bring himself to raise premiums sharply, because of the temporary unpopularity it risks. Following public grumbles that retired civil servants, teachers and ex-servicemen were a privileged group, the cabinet announced plans to cut more than $300m in year-end bonuses, affecting around 381,000. The trouble was, veterans are among the KMT’s most fervent backers.
Cracks are starting to grow in the KMT façade. Recently Sean Lien, a prominent politician, criticised Mr Ma’s economic policies, saying that any politician in office during this time of sluggish growth was at best a “master of a beggar clan”—implying a country of paupers.
But the next election is four years away, and presidential hopefuls will not try to oust or even outshine Mr Ma anytime soon. After all, they will not want to take responsibility for the country’s economic problems. Nothing suggests Mr Ma’s main policies will change (or that they should), but his credibility is draining by the day.
A reply by Lyushun Shen, Representative of Taipei representative office in the UK, London:
Although I do not deny some of the facts reported in your piece, I would like to point out that under President Ma Taiwan’s average economic growth rate between 2008 and 2011 was 3.4%, which was higher than that of South Korea and Hong Kong. According to your Economist Intelligence Unit, Taiwan’s GDP per person (PPP adjusted) in 2011 was $41,385, well over that of Britain ($35,725), Germany, France, Japan and South Korea. The foreign trade of Taiwan, which has but one-seventh of the United Kingdom’s land area and 37% of its population, was $590 billion in 2011, more than half of Britain’s $1.1 trillion. Our ranking in the World Competitiveness Yearbook has jumped from 23rd in 2009 to 7th in 2012.
President Ma will do his utmost to weather another global recession, and he is determined to push forward with reforms. It is not surprising that some of his initiatives have been unpopular during the downturn. The people of Taiwan have every right to use harsh words against their president, but when a foreign media organisation repeats the name calling it should at least use quotation marks.
My take: While The Economist statistically pointed out that the standard living of the ordinary people has been worsening, coupled with Ma’s indecisive policies, Mr Shen refuted it with “average economic growth rate between 2008 and 2011”!!!! (HELLO!!! Wasn’t 2008~2009 the worst-ever global financial crisis after the Great Depression?!! Wasn’t it just a matter of NATURAL COURSE that economy would recover from the bottoming-out 2008?!!!~). Also, a significant difference from Taiwan’s exports accounting for 70% of GDP like the Economist stated, the UK’s exports had been around 30% of its GDP from 2007~2011 according to http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NE.EXP.GNFS.ZS. Lastly, I think I understand why The Economist did NOT put a quotation mark on bumbler — he, You Know Who, has indeed been a blunderer since taking office in 2008!!