Taiwan's Ma Ying-jeou pays price for heavy-handed politicking

The public backlash against the Taiwanese leader for targeting the legislative speaker has been intense but he brought it on himself

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 September, 2013, 5:25am

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou could hardly have imagined that his lightning ousting of Wang Jin-pyng, his fellow KMT member but political rival, from the post of speaker of the legislature would make him the most unpopular president that Taiwan has had.

Ma had demanded that the KMT disciplinary committee revoke Wang's party membership, and hence remove him from the speakership, after accusing him of lobbying then justice minister Tseng Yung-fu and the High Prosecutors Office head Chen Shou-huang to drop an appeal against a high court's verdict of not guilty in a case involving a prominent opposition legislator.

A veteran politician with 38 years of experience in the legislature, including 14 as speaker, Wang, 72, has long been seen as a shrewd operator capable of cultivating good relations with the opposition as well as his own party.

And Ma's allegations appeared reasonable, given Wang's good ties with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party that have allowed him on occasion to win compromises from the DPP over bills that Ma backs.

While Ma believes it is inevitable for Wang to step down, the winds of fortune seem to be blowing in Wang's favour.

He has not only won a court injunction that temporarily allows him to stay as a KMT member and speaker of the legislature, he has also gained increasing public support in what the media and pundits describe as Taiwan's "September's political struggle".

A recent opinion poll by Taiwan Think Tank showed that Wang's popularity has risen to an all-time high of 60.5 per cent, while a poll by ERA cable television showed that Ma's approval rating has slipped to a new low of just 9.2 per cent.

The sharp contrast is due to the public's belief that Wang is the victim of the power struggle.

While a number of people felt that the speaker might have been involved in the lobbying, Wang has denied the accusation. He says he was framed by investigators whom he claims collaborated with Prosecutor-General Huang Shih-ming to illegally wiretap him and fake the lobbying irregularity.

Why has Ma come under such fire from the public and seen his popularity dip to such humiliating levels? The reasons are straightforward.

First, Ma has in the past cut a gentlemanly figure as a politician who abides by the law and constitution. His surprising heavy-handedness in ousting Wang without solid proof of his lobbying is in stark contrast to his usual insistence that everyone must be presumed innocent before being convicted. As president, he is supposed to stay above the fray on issues like this, especially when the legislature is constitutionally independent from the government.

Second, the swift action against Wang without giving him the 20 days to which he is entitled to appeal to the KMT ethics committee was seen by the public as unacceptable.

Only hours after Ma demanded, in his capacity as KMT chairman, that the disciplinary committee sack Wang last Wednesday, the committee made the decision to kick Wang out and notified the Central Election Commission to nullify Wang's status as legislator and speaker on the same day.

Third, Ma has given the public the impression of having double standards in dealing with irregularities involving his confidants and Wang. In contrast to the swift ousting of Wang, no rapid punitive measures were taken by the KMT against former Ma aides charged with corruption.

Fourth, poor handling of the island's economy and unpopular policies have added to public resentment of Ma and his administration.

With his tenure ending in 2016, Ma has a tough task addressing the political fallout from this affair if he is to leave in reasonably good odour.