For the last couple of years, a little thought has kept pushing its way into my head. “Hey, President Ma’s second term is looking more and more like President Chen’s disastrous second term.” I’ve rolled this thought around, but I’ve always ended up pushing it away. After all, Chen’s second term was an absolute catastrophe. The term had started out with massive street protests stemming from the 2004 election eve assassination attempt, which for many delegitimized Chen’s entire term. In the middle of the term, there were more massive street protests, as the Red Shirts called for Chen’s removal from office in the face of mounting corruption cases. Chen veered from the pragmatic toward the ideological extreme, desperately trying to hold onto the fundamentalist wing of the spectrum in order to block any impeachments. The DPP underwent intense political infighting, with the New Tide faction moving into outright opposition to Chen and others being labeled as the “Ten Bandits” (十大寇) for their supposed willingness to sell the country out to China. It was a shrill and exhausting period. Public disgust with the DPP eventually climaxed with the KMT’s massive 2008 victory. There was even a short period in which people were unsure the DPP would survive to the next election. In short, Chen’s second term was a train wreck, and that’s putting it kindly.
Amazingly, I’m becoming less and less hesitant to compare Ma’s second term to Chen’s second term. I’m slowly coming to the realization that, as bad as Chen’s was, Ma’s might be worse. We have had massive street protests. We have seen abuse of power (eg: Huang Shih-ming case). The KMT’s internal struggle has perhaps been worse than the DPP’s, with Ma’s attempted purge of Speaker Wang and all its attendant fallout. Ma’s approval ratings are certainly lower than Chen’s. Chen at least always had the firm support of the fundamentalist wing of the party. I have always assumed that the dissatisfaction to Chen was more intense, but my subjective impression is that Ma is catching up. That is, it seems to me that the 75% or so who are dissatisfied with Ma today are more intensely dissatisfied than the roughly 75% who were dissatisfied two years ago. The local elections were certainly worse for Ma than Chen. In 2005/6, the DPP lost places like Yilan, Taipei County, Nantou, Changhua, and Chiayi City. Of course these were painful defeats, but these places were, except for Yilan, swing districts rather than traditional bastions of party support. The DPP held onto the rest of the south, even managing to transfer power to a new mayor in Kaohsiung City. There were no equivalents of the KMT’s humiliations in Taipei and Taoyuan Cities in 2014. Both presidents struggled with becoming a lame duck. When Chen appointed Su Tseng-chang as Premier in January 2006, he announced that he would be retreating to the second line, away from everyday politics. This reticence only lasted a few months before he publicly tried to muscle his way back into all critical decisions. Similarly, President Ma may be regretting his decision to resign as KMT party chair. His recent public insistence that the KMT continue to pursue the legal case against Speaker Wang and his many statements that he is not a lame duck suggest that he is trying to reclaim political authority.
You can clearly see the impact of Ma’s awful second term in a recent TVBS survey on party images. The TVBS survey team helpfully put together long term trend lines for several of the questions. There is a consistent pattern across a range of questions. In the late 1990s, the KMT image was bad, and the DPP image was good. In the 2004-6 period, the lines shifted. Assessments of the DPP crashed while those for the KMT rose. The KMT had a superior image through Ma’s first term, but it has cratered in Ma’s second term. The DPP’s image looks roughly as good as it did in the late 1990s, while the KMT’s image is generally even worse than it was then. Graph 7-1 shows the percentages of people who believe the KMT or DPP are somewhat incorrupt or very incorrupt. Graph 8-1 shows the percentage who feel that the KMT or DPP is an energetic party. (“Energetic” 有活力 is a very vague term in Mandarin; I think most people understand it to mean the opposite of bureaucratic, stultified, or incapable of reflection.) Graph 9-1 shows the percentage of people who believe the KMT or DPP is a united party. (Note that the intervals between surveys do not represent equal time periods. For example, there are five data points between Oct 2007 and Oct 2008, but there are a full two years between the last two data points. If you spaced them by time, that plunge in the KMT’s image over the last two years would look more imposing.)
Some of the other questions in the TVBS survey are also interesting. Table 3 shows the percentage of people who think the KMT is trustworthy (22%) or not trustworthy (64%). That is a huge deficit. Never mind the 40% of the population that will never vote for the KMT; a large part – maybe half – of the KMT’s target population doesn’t see it as trustworthy! Table 4 asks how much the KMT understands public opinion, and 70% say it doesn’t understand well at all. Table 5 asks whether the public interest or the party’s interests are more important to the KMT, and a whopping 73% believe the KMT places more importance on its own interests. In Table 6, 76% believe that the degree to which the KMT by large corporations is at least somewhat serious, and 57% believe that it is very serious.
These are awful numbers for the KMT. It is seen as corrupt, out of touch, selfish, and beset by internal squabbles. Perhaps this is the reason for what may be the most astounding number of all. TVBS asked which party respondents would prefer to govern after 2016. Among the 23% of respondents who self-identified as KMT supporters on the standard party ID question, only 60% wanted the KMT to remain in power! President Ma’s second term has been such a disaster that a significant minority of party identifiers (and this group is much smaller than it was three years ago) have to wonder if the KMT needs to be thrown out of power.
One of the final elements of the Chen’s second term was the seeming inability of the DPP to see the coming disaster. They simply seemed oblivious to their awful public opinion ratings. Even as the electorate was clearly fed up with them, they engaged in a vicious power struggle to see who would succeed Chen. Hsieh vanquished Su in a rancorous fight, but he never came close to winning the election. As we enter into the final chapter of Ma’s presidency, I wonder if the KMT is any less oblivious. Ma certainly seems grimly determined to maintain his policy line until the bitter end. Ironically, the KMT’s saving grace may be that Ma has discredited himself so much that he no longer has the power to try to arrange the 2016 nomination. VP Wu might be willing to fight vigorously for the nomination as the person who will continue Ma’s policies, but I’m not sure that President Ma still has enough clout to make a real fight of it, much less win. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Whoever emerges as the KMT nominee will face a monumental task. Right now, the KMT’s image and reputation is simply awful.