Ma’s 2nd term, 2012-15

1.7 Ma Ying-jeou’s Second Term (2012-2015)

[written December 31, 2015]


Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT won a convincing, though not overwhelming, majority in 2012. Ma beat Tsai by a margin of 51.6-45.6%, and the KMT won 64 of the 113 seats in the legislature. Ma’s re-election turned out to be the high point of his second term. His satisfaction ratings started plummeting almost immediately. By late 2012, they were in the low teens, where they would remain for the rest of his presidency. Several things drove this public anger. There were several prominent corruption cases, the risings prices of gas and oil were partially due to changes in the government’s pricing formula, there were repeated food safety scandals, Ma’s promised economic growth never materialized, the government’s moves to open a new nuclear plant in the face of clear public opposition, and a seemingly indifferent attitude to the public’s dissatisfaction. Taiwan’s relationship with China is always at the core of Taiwan’s political discourse, and there was quite a bit of concern that Ma was moving too close to China. For example, many people were uneasy when the government announced that Taiwan’s relationship with China was “not an international relationship,” thus removing a layer of ambiguity and moving Taiwan slightly closer to unification.

Ma’s most important goals for his second term were to (a) pass a Services Trade Agree (STA) with China, (b) open the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant (4NPP), and (c) hold a summit with Xi Jinping, his counterpart in the PRC. None of these have gone as planned.

The Ma administration spent the first year or so of the second term negotiating the STA with China. The administration insisted on tight control of the negotiations, refusing to allow any input from businesses or even KMT legislators. The pact was then sent to the legislature with informal instructions to the KMT caucus to pass it without any amendments. Because the pact would have affected many different interests, many of which were important constituencies for various KMT legislators, the caucus resisted rubber stamping the STA. Annoyed by the stalling and noises about possible amendments, Ma made a dramatic attempt to tame the legislature. In September 2013, Ma accused Speaker Wang Jin-pyng of influence-peddling, and, as KMT party chair, ordered Wang’s expulsion from the party. Since Wang had been elected on the party list, expulsion from the party would have also meant that Wang lost his seat in the legislature. Presumably, the KMT would have elevated the deputy speaker Hung Hsiu-chu, a much more pro-China politician, to the speaker’s chair. However, Ma’s plans were foiled by a last minute court order allowing Wang to keep his party membership. Ma’s failed coup attempt fractured the KMT and dramatically reduced his control over the KMT legislative caucus.

In spring 2014, the legislature once again took up the STA. Because the KMT was fractured and did not unanimously support the pact, the DPP found ample opportunities to obstruct the legislative process. The DPP used many tactics that the KMT considered illegitimate, such as physically occupying the podium so that no official business could be conducted. Under intense pressure from President Ma to pass the STA by whatever means necessary, KMT legislators started to take liberties with the procedures, doing things such as scheduling several hearings all in one day. This came to a head on March 23. The DPP obstructed a committee hearing by occupying the podium, so the KMT committee chair snuck off into the corner and quietly declared that the bill had passed the committee stage and could be sent to the floor. The DPP protested, but it seemed as if the KMT would succeed. Then society intervened.

That night, a group of students broke into the lightly guarded legislature. By the time the authorities managed to mobilize enough manpower to dislodge them, it was too late. When the news of the break-in hit social media, swarms of students and citizens rushed to the legislature to form a human shield for the students inside the legislative chamber. By the next day, students were arriving from all over the island to occupy the streets outside the legislature, where thousands and thousands sat peacefully but insistently for the next three weeks. The Sunflower Movement eventually became the largest and most important student movement since the Wild Lily Movement of 1990-1. There were many in the Ma camp who wanted to forcefully remove the students. However, the speaker is responsible for the legislature’s security, and Speaker Wang refused to allow police to use force against the students inside the building. A few days after the break-in to the legislature, another group broke into the nearby Executive Yuan building. This time, there was no hesitation. Premier Jiang Yi-hua ordered police to remove the demonstrators, and they did so that night. As the country watched on live TV, police attacked the students with water cannons and sometimes batons. There were many accusations of excessive violence, especially when there were no TV cameras to record events. On March 30, a massive street rally was held, with perhaps 350,000 people attending. This outpouring of popular support for the students was echoed in opinion polls that showed the public was much more sympathetic to the students than to the government. The standoff dragged on for two more weeks, until Speaker Wang finally convinced the students to leave by promising that the legislature would not pass the STA until it first passed an oversight framework for all cross-strait agreements. As it turned out, the legislature did not come close to passing an oversight bill, much less the STA, in the remainder of the legislative term. The Sunflower Movement effectively killed the STA. It also politicized a generation of students with a strong sense of Taiwanese identity and very negative feelings toward the KMT.

Almost immediately after the Sunflower students went home, Taiwan was hit with another political drama, this one concerning nuclear power. Taiwan started building 4NPP way back in the Lee Teng-hui era. At that time, nuclear power was not a straight partisan issue, though there were some staunch opponents in the DPP. The most strident was Lin Yi-hsiung, who was DPP party chair when CSB was elected. Under Lin’s insistence, the DPP tried to stop construction. The KMT objected, and 4NPP became the first real test of power between the DPP-led executive and the KMT-dominated legislature. The KMT won, and the DPP was forced to resume construction. This conflict transformed nuclear power into a partisan issue. By 2013, after many delays, massive cost overruns, and myriad safety concerns, the construction was finally completed. However, following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, public opinion had turned against nuclear power, especially considering the misgivings over safety. KMT legislators did not want to openly support the plant, so Premier Jiang announced that he would support a referendum on whether 4NPP should be opened. This backfired. Surveys showed that opposition to 4NPP jumped about 10% higher immediately after Jiang proposed the referendum. At any rate, the KMT legislative caucus did not even want to vote to propose the referendum. In early April, Lin Yi-hsiung went on a hunger strike, demanding that the government renounce any intentions to open the plant. After about a week of mounting pressure, the government caved in, announcing it would mothball the plants. Thus, within the space of a month, two of the most important items on President Ma’s agenda collapsed.

Nearly three years after the January 2012 election, voters finally had an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the Ma government in the November 2014 local elections. They did so in stunning fashion. For two decades, the party system had been fairly stable, with the KMT-led blue camp generally leading the DPP-led green camp by about a 50-45% margin, give or take a corruption scandal. In the 2014 mayoral elections, blue camp candidates only got a shade over 40%, while green camp candidates exceeded 55%, an unprecedented reversal. The swing was nationwide. In the DPP’s southern stronghold, landslides became bloodbaths. In central Taiwan’s swing districts, close races turned out as landslides. In the north, long the KMT’s heartland, the KMT not only was slaughtered in the high-profile Taipei mayoral race, it also lost three other areas that had always been solidly blue. The KMT only managed to hold onto one urban city and a handful of smaller and less important rural governments. Immediately after the election, Premier Jiang resigned and Ma Ying-jeou relinquished the KMT party chair.

2015 has been dominated by the upcoming elections. There was never a doubt that Tsai Ing-wen would represent the DPP, and there hasn’t been much doubt for the past year that she would eventually win the presidency. The KMT side has, as in the rest of this period, been more turbulent. There was quite a bit of speculation about who would win the nomination, but none of the first-tier candidates registered for the party primary. Some, such as VP Wu and former Taipei mayor Hau, had dismal support in the polls. Speaker Wang wanted to run, but President Ma and the military wing of the party apparently vetoed his candidacy. New Taipei mayor and new KMT chair Eric Chu could have had the nomination at any time, but he mystified everyone by declining to run. In the end, only two unlikely candidates registered and one of them was disqualified for failing to collect enough signatures. That left deputy speaker Hung Hsiu-chu, a hardline Chinese nationalist. Hung unexpectedly passed the polling primary threshold, and, to widespread disbelief, she was duly nominated as the KMT presidential candidate in July. However, when she started campaigning nationally, reality hit in. Her ultra-Chinese orientation did not find much support in the general population. When her poll numbers sank below 20% and even below those of the PFP’s James Soong, the nativist wing of the KMT threatened a rebellion. To stave off this possibility, Eric Chu announced that he would be willing to replace her as the presidential candidate. Hung decided not to resist, and Chu was made the nominee in October. Unfortunately, Chu’s poll numbers haven’t been much better than Hung’s.

In November, Ma shocked everyone by announcing that he would meet with Xi Jinping in Singapore just a few days later. The summit provided opportunity for numerous photos of Ma and Xi expressing friendship, but it was not the triumph that Ma had envisioned at the beginning of his term. Without the STA, there was no substantive achievement to point to, and the two sides had to rely heavily on symbolism. More importantly, the content and the coverage of the event were heavily influenced by a person who wasn’t there — Tsai Ing-wen. Everyone was aware that Tsai was far ahead in the polls and that the public was highly unlikely to give a stamp of approval to Ma’s governance in the upcoming elections. The Ma-Xi meeting turned out to be as much about trying to force Tsai into a One China box as a celebration of amiable relations between the Ma and Xi governments.

Ma’s second term has left everyone in the KMT angry and disillusioned. They gave up hope of winning the presidency a long time ago. Now they seem to have also given up on holding a majority in the legislature, and they are only hoping to avoid an electoral disaster and a total repudiation of the Ma presidency.



%d bloggers like this: