He’s back: Ma Ying-jeou rebuilds his popularity – might another run for Taiwan’s presidency be in store?

Even with lawsuits and allegations still swirling around him, the once disgraced former president has become more visible on what could well be a political comeback trail

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2018, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 May, 2018, 11:10pm

Thousands of supporters packed a night market in Hualien in eastern Taiwan last month to try to get a glimpse of Ma Ying-jeou, the island’s former president.

Passionate fans even formed a queue at least 200 metres long to shake hands or have their photos taken with the ex-leader, who twice visited the city to show concern soon after a 6.4-magnitude earthquake wrecked Hualien in early February, killing 17 people and injuring 290 others.

Wearing a dark blue lightweight jacket with a hood, Ma busily worked the crowd. Some fans said they had been waiting for hours to see him. 

“If I were able to shake hands with him, I would not have washed my hand for three days,” a female supporter said. 

Three other fans being pushed by the crowd to one side screamed with joy when Ma unexpectedly stretched out his arm for handshakes with them, all while calling for more efforts to help revive tourism in Hualien.

“This is the first time I have seen our business rebounded a month after the earthquake,” said a vendor who gave only his last name, Wang. “The ex-president has brought us the business,” he said, echoing the appeal made by other supporters for Ma to stage a comeback.

In fact, words of encouragement, urging him to run in the 2020 presidential election, have become increasingly vocal since Ma made an overnight visit to Kaohsiung, the pro-independence home base, for a predawn “Republic of China” flag-raising ceremony to greet the start of the year of 2018. Supporters have echoed the appeal in other places around Taiwan, including temples and schools that he visited. 

Even politicians running for the year-end local polls have tried to have Ma pose with them in photographs, as a sign of getting Ma’s support for their year-end bids – a stark contrast to the time when a handshake with Ma meant a grasp of death or a photo op with the ex-leader appeared an act of political suicide.

All of a sudden, it seems, Ma has regained his popularity – which once sank to a low of a mere 9 per cent approval rating in 2013, during his second term as president.

“Tsai Ing-wen should take the credit for boosting Ma Ying-jeou,” a blogger, Sun Wei-lun, wrote last month about why Ma had regained his popularity. “What she has been doing has made Ma look much better” in terms of administration, he said, a reference to the lacklustre performance of President Tsai, her government and the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) she leads.

Sang Pin-zai, a columnist in the local United Daily News, wrote last month that Ma’s popularity surge reflected a kind of political nostalgia: while the public is disappointed with the Tsai government, they start remembering the good things about Ma’s administration.

“The three characters – Ma Ying-jeou – thus became a small but warm current in the cold winter before and after the Lunar New Year” in February, he said, adding that those who used to believe Ma was a bumbler now think he should not be the only person taking the blame for the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT), the long-standing party that had dominated Taiwanese politics since the end of the Chinese civil war.

With his movie star looks and squeaky clean character, Ma used to be highly popular among Taiwanese politicians. He won the top job in 2008 at a time when voters were fed up with the tainted former president Chen Shui-bian, who stepped down at the end of his second term and was later jailed for corruption. 

When Ma, who promised voters clean politics and improvement of the island’s sagging economy, became president and doubled as head of the KMT in 2008, the KMT still controlled the majority of parliament and the political landscape of Taiwan. But the Ma government’s mishandling of a devastating typhoon that killed nearly 700 people in August 2009 led to public criticism and the KMT’s small electoral defeat in the end of that year. 

After Ma was reelected to a second four-year term in 2012, his political fortune waned further because of global economic woes and unpopular policies, including rises in the prices of oil and electricity. His political fight with KMT parliament speaker Wang Jin-pyng and his apparently quick bowing to public pressure over controversial issues like shutting a new nuclear power plant to please environmentalists had made him highly unpopular. His approval rating dipped to a low of 9 per cent in 2013 from a high of 68 per cent when he was first elected in 2008. 

For a lesson on party revival, Taiwan’s KMT should look to its bitter rival – the DPP 

Towards the end of 2014, the KMT suffered a humiliating defeat, losing both the parliament and the majority control of the local governments in Taiwan – its worst electoral setback since Chiang Kai-shek brought the KMT forces to Taiwan after being defeated by the Chinese communists in 1949. 

Sang said that since Ma stepped down at the end of his second term in May 2016, KMT voters had begun to think it unfair to place all the blame on Ma for failing to save the KMT. Long-standing fights within the century-old party – which was founded in 1911 in China by Sun Yat-sen – had twice split the party and continue to affect its internal unity, he noted.

Sang said now that Tsai had become the president, the public naturally would compare her performances and policies with those of Ma, including the island’s policies towards mainland China.

Taiwan’s military veterans ready to ‘betray’ their past at the ballot boxes and vote against the KMT

“Such a comparison would allow the public to find out whether Taiwan has become better,” said Shuang, referring to the DPP campaign slogan that “Taiwan would never fare better if the KMT continued to survive”.

And yet, under Ma, Taiwan didn’t do too badly. Ma’s policy to engage Beijing between 2008 and 2016 led to a sharp improvement of cross-strait relations and hence substantial increases in cross-strait business – even if it also led to criticism that Ma was relying too much on the mainland to power Taiwan’s economy.

By contrast, the Tsai government reported GDP growth of 2.86 per cent for 2017, much stronger than forecast. But many sectors, including tourism, have lamented business losses since Tsai became president in 2016. 

Tsai and the DPP refuse to accept the “one China” principle that Beijing has insisted on as the political foundation for continued cross-strait talks and exchanges. 

Under the principle, Taiwan and the mainland are parts of a single China subject to eventual unification. 

In a reader’s comment appearing at online survey agency Daily View on April 27, Fang Keng said: “President Tsai Ing-wen. You have not showed any clear direction over the country’s future, and the way you handle cross-strait relations is worrisome … Your domestic policies are full of controversies too.” 

Beijing has stopped official talks and exchanges with Taiwan after Tsai refused to accept the “one China” principle and has time and again warned the Tsai government against declaring formal independence or face military attack from the mainland, which sees Taiwan as its territory subject to eventual union, if necessary by force. Recent sabre-rattling includes naval and aerial military exercises near the island by mainland forces.

Payback time? The links between Beijing, the Dominican Republic and Tsai Ing-wen’s pro-independence appointments

Since Tsai took office in 2016, Taiwan has lost three allies – Sao Tome and Principe in December 2016, Panama in June 2017 and most recently the Dominican Republic on May 1 – all of which switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei. During Ma’s eight years in office, only Gambia switched ties to Beijing, in November 2013.

Tourism businesses now see a sharp fall in the number of mainland visitors, who, under Ma’s time as president, had been regarded as a steady and substantial revenue source.

“No more tourism boom at famous scenic spots like Sun Moon Lake and Ali Mountain, and a chain of tourism-related businesses like restaurants, three- or four-star hotels and tour buses which used to thrive on rapid visits by mainland visitors either have closed or struggled to survive,” tour operator Royce Wang said.

Tsai is facing more than a drop-off in the tourist trade. Young people have also complained about the humble salaries they receive; many university graduates have found their monthly pay staying unchanged at roughly NT$22,000, or about US$750 even after five years of work. Some who used to denounce the KMT and the Ma government for being too close to Beijing had started heading west, the United Daily News reported, getting much better paying jobs on the mainland and leading to the Tsai government’s concern of a possible brain drain on the island.

Military veterans who used to hate Ma for terminating their year-end bonus – worth about six weeks of their monthly pensions – now face an even tougher cutback courtesy of the Tsai government. In line with Tsai’s pension reform plan, the 18 per cent interest rate given to their monthly pensions saved in the banks will soon be phased out along with those for retired teachers and civil servants.

Miao Te-sheng, a retired colonel, died in early March after being injured in a fall during a protest at the parliament against Tsai’s pension reform, which protesters claimed is meant to build up Tsai’s reformer image at the expense of the hard-earned interests of retirees.

We have to win back the heart of Taiwan’s young: defeated KMT

Following Miao’s death, there have been growing calls from netizens at PTT – the largest terminal-based bulletin board system in Taiwan – and other local blogs for KMT supporters who did not vote for the party in the last election cycle to return to the fold in the next presidential election.

To hear many of the posters on such bulletin boards tell it, Ma appears to be the party’s only hope since no one else is popular enough to challenge the DPP now that the overall image of the KMT has remained at an all-time low. Even former vice-president Annette Lu of the DPP said on a televised political talk show in February  that she believed Ma “is eager to represent the KMT to run in the 2020 race”.

A former government official who is close to Ma explained that “actually, discussions like this are a test balloon to see the public’s reaction and to apply pressure to the DPP”. 

The former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the DPP’s attempt to humiliate Ma by bringing a series of lawsuits against him through its lawmakers and supporters for alleged corruption or administrative negligence had prompted Ma to fight back not only by legal means but also politically. 

Taiwan's ex-president Ma Ying-jeou faces lawsuits as immunity ends

Ma is facing at least a dozen lawsuits, including for alleged corruption in the awarding of the contract to a local developer, Farglory Group, for the building of the Taipei Dome stadium in 2004, when Ma was mayor of Taipei, as well as for allegedly leaking classified information involving the parliament speaker and a DPP whip, who were being investigated for alleged influence peddling. 

Just last week , Ma once again faced a new investigation into allegations of financial irregularities concerning the sale of KMT assets, including its previous headquarters building and two KMT media outlets.

Legal actions against Ma, mostly initiated by the DPP, are considered political witch hunts by the KMT.

The more popular Ma became, the bigger the challenge he would pose the DPP in terms of the next presidential poll, the official close to him noted.

Ma has remained active since stepping down, visiting various parts of the island, giving autographs and posing with anyone who asks to take photos with him, giving speeches at universities and public events and joining in various KMT publicity events. He has made four overseas visits, including to the United States and Malaysia, where he delivered speeches on Taiwan’s situation and cross-strait relations.

Asked if Ma really has the intention to stage a comeback, the official said that there was no harm trying if Ma’s popularity continued to grow.

Taiwan’s economy can’t distract from Tsai’s troubled first year

So far, Ma has declined to say whether he wants to run or not. “Thank you” was the only comment he made when asked by the Post during a brief news conference he held on April 27 about the prosecutors’ probe of the alleged financial irregularities, in which he sternly denied having any wrongdoing. 

Under Taiwanese law, Ma can run again four years after finishing two terms in office.

The last public opinion poll with popularity rating involving Ma and other celebrities in Taiwan was conducted by the cable news network TVBS in September last year, with Ma winning 37 per cent, 6 percentage points ahead of Tsai. But of the 14 politicians rated, Ma came in eighth after Eric Chu (44 per cent) and James Soong of the People First Party (43 per cent). Observers said his popularity had probably risen by leaps and bounds since then, given the level of welcome he had received.

The latest survey by Taiwan-based Daily View, which uses big data to trace the popularity rating of 100 celebrities through their public appearances, talks, social media viewership and likes showed that between October 30, 2017 and April 27, Ma received an overall positive rating of 9.4 per cent compared with Tsai’s 8.8 per cent. 

The official close to Ma said the DPP would have to consider the prospect of Ma as a spoiler candidate during the 2020 elections, should Ko Wen-je, the highly popular mayor of Taipei who does not have any party affiliation, run for the presidency against Tsai. 

The Daily View survey shows that Ko, seen by local news media as a possible challenger of Tsai in the next poll, has an overall positive rating of 11 per cent, making him the most popular politician in Taiwan. Premier William Lai Ching-te came in second at 9.8 per cent, followed by Ma. 

A March 20 opinion poll conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, a DPP think tank, showed that Tsai’s approval rating was flat at 33.5 per cent, compared with 56 per cent when she was inaugurated in May 2016. While there was an 1.8 percentage-point increase from January, her disapproval rating also rose 0.4 percentage point during the same period.

“Her approval rating has lingered below 39 per cent since November last year, while her disapproval rating has remained at about 46 per cent since December last year, indicating a crisis for her administration,” foundation chairman You Ying-lung said, adding Tsai’s popularity has waned in the past year due to unpopular policies such as pension and labour reforms. 

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen opts for low-key anniversary of first turbulent year in office

On Taipei’s relations with Beijing, the poll showed that 57.3 per cent of the respondents disapproved of Tsai’s handling of cross-strait affairs, versus 32.6 per cent satisfied with it, according to You.

Analysts, however, said while it was still premature to speculate over whether Ma would stage a political comeback, they believed Ma would not really take action because the stakes were too high.

“If he did, voters would start to remember the bad things about him, including not being a capable leader and trying all he could to stay out of the business he believes could create a black spot to him,” said Philip Yang, director of the Taiwan Association of International Relations.

Sun Yang-ming, deputy director of the Chinese Cyan Geese Peace and Education Foundation, a KMT think tank, said it would be tough for Ma to pacify other KMT heavyweight hopefuls, including incumbent KMT chairman Wu Den-yih, his deputy during his second term, and Eric Chu, the mayor of New Taipei City, if he sought the KMT’s blessing for his bid.

“The test balloons are more a gesture to tell the DPP not to press him too hard,” Sun said, noting that Ma still trails Ko and Lai in terms of popularity.

Ma’s office was not available for comment on the issue, but local reports cited his aide as saying that he had no plan to run for the presidency.

After a five-day trip to the US in mid-April, where Ma paid respects to a statue of Sun Yat-sen and attended a banquet joined by hundreds of ethnic Taiwanese before speaking at Stanford University in California, he returned to Taiwan on April 14. 

The next day, apparently having no need to deal with jet lag, a playful Ma, wearing a wetsuit and goggles, appeared in New Taipei City Sunday morning to join immigrants and workers from Southeast Asia in celebrating the Water Splashing Festival. He was joined by three other KMT leaders:  the chairman Wu, the New Taipei mayor and ex-KMT chairman Eric Chu, and the ex-chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu.

“Go ahead,” he told the enthusiastic crowd. “I am all ready to be splashed.”