Ratings for Ma hit rock bottom
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou probably never thought that his popularity could plummet to a level comparable to disgraced predecessor Chen Shui-bian, currently in jail for corruption.
Ma, once the darling of the media, was elected to office four years ago with a squeaky clean image and was re-elected in January on the back of pledges to ensure stability and prosperity for Taiwanese people.
But as he takes an oath of office today to begin his second term, he finds his popularity has slipped to a low of 20 per cent. One survey by the opposition shows his approval rating has hit 15 per cent - even lower than the 18 per cent once given to Chen.
His unpopularity is the result, analysts say, of several factors - poor crisis management, a lack of capable consultants, policy flip-flops, and most importantly a failure to improve public livelihood. Ma has been successful, however, in strengthening ties with the mainland, with several key tourism and investment pacts signed under his watch, leading to a reduction of tension across the Taiwan Strait.
'If he fails to improve, he will become a lame duck president soon,' said Hsu Yung-ming, political science professor at Soochow University in Taipei.
Ma was re-elected in January with 51.6 per cent of the popular vote, beating Dr Tsai Ing-wen, former chairwoman of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, who failed to convince voters she was able to keep cross-strait relations stable.
In his victory speech on January 14, Ma vowed to do everything within his power to improve his administration and bring better prosperity.
'But where is this so-called prosperity?' asked Liu Hui-ling, a bank official. 'What he has done over the past several months has caused only public resentment,' she said, referring to a series of policies, including increases in electricity and fuel prices, that were unpopular.
Shortly after he was re-elected, Ma looked at lifting a ban on imports of US beef that contained residue of ractopamine, a feed additive that promotes leanness. About 160 counties, including members of the European Union, ban the additive, according to experts, and Taiwan stopped importing ractopamine-laced beef in 2003.
Washington, which reportedly backed Ma's second-term bid, is pressing Taiwan to overturn the ban, indicating it is preventing stalled trade talks between the two sides from resuming.
But the move upset many Taiwanese concerned about the safety of consuming beef containing ractopamine. Opposition lawmakers threatened to hold a no-confidence vote against Premier Sean Chen, who Ma appointed to lead the cabinet.
Ma also came under fire for proposing the introduction of a capital gains tax on stock transactions. He argues it will help redistribute wealth among the island's 23 million people. Under the initial plan floated by the government, individual investors who earn more than NT$3 million (HK$787,200) annually from trading stocks, futures, and options would incur a 20 per cent tax from next year. About 1 per cent of individual investors would fall under the scope of the tax, according to the government.
'A number of my clients have seriously complained about the proposed tax, saying it would only serve to scare away investors,' Liu said.
Since March 2, Taiwan's benchmark Taiex Index has fallen 993 points to 7,151 points on Friday.
The Ma government proposed last month to raise domestic electricity and oil prices so that they better reflected their actual cost, which has been rising for several years. The announcement sparked a public outcry, with many people complaining that their salaries had remained unchanged or had even fallen and they now paid more for products.
Sensing his popularity faltering, Ma quickly announced that the one-time increase in electricity and fuel rates would be made in three stages, and that the proposed stock tax would apply only to a few investors.
The stumbles gave opposition lawmakers an excuse to try to unseat Ma in the final week of his first tenure.
Although the planned motion was stopped by KMT lawmakers, who hold the majority of seats in the legislature, opposition lawmakers claimed success by humiliating Ma. 'This at least left a bad mark on his presidency,' DPP legislator Wu Ping-jui said.
Professor George Tsai Wei, a political analyst at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, said there was nothing wrong with Ma's policies as they were challenges the government must confront eventually.
'It was the timing that made them wrong,' he said, adding it also led to another question over whether Ma has a capable consultancy team to give him effective advice.
Wang Kung-yi, a professor of international affairs and strategic studies at Tamkang University, said that while Ma was a good person, he was not a good political operator like former Taiwan province governor James Soong or former president Lee Teng-hui. This made it difficult for him to govern at a critical time where the global economic outcome was uncertain. 'Crafty politicians sense the right time to do the right things and are skilful enough to convince the public to accept even unpopular policies,' Wang said.
Both Wang and Tsai said Ma must heed public opinion and form a strong consultancy team to advise him properly.