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Sunday's rally a wake-up call to Taiwan's leader

Publication Date : 17-01-2013


The success of a huge rally on Sunday was not so much a show of support for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as a wake- up call to President Ma Ying-jeou, observers say.

Should the beleaguered leader and his ruling Kuomintang fail to improve, they can only expect more trouble ahead, including the threat of a recall motion against Ma and devastating defeats in next year's municipal elections as well as the presidential race in 2016.

The surest and fastest way for Ma to win back some hearts, say analysts, is to reshuffle the underperforming Cabinet and get on top of challenges including controversial plans to reform civil service pensions and a planned media anti-monopoly law.

"A tweak of the unsatisfactory Cabinet after the Chinese New Year would be a quick way to boost the president's popularity," said political science professor Wang Yeh-lih from the National Taiwan University. He named economic affairs minister Shih Yen-hsiang and top economic planner Yiin Chii-ming as the ministers who should go, for failing to boost Taiwan's sluggish economy or come up with a comprehensive plan to do so.

Taiwan's growth slowed to 0.95 per cent last year, according to think-tank estimates, while unemployment remains at over 4 per cent. Wage levels have barely budged for the past decade.

Some 150,000 Taiwanese took to the streets of Taipei on Sunday in a show of unhappiness with the leadership of Ma, who was sworn in to his second term barely eight months ago.

Su Tseng-chang, DPP chairman and organiser of the protest, slammed the government for failing to improve the economy, allowing pro-China firms to buy Taiwan's most popular media outlets and refusing to hold a conference with his party.

Critics say Ma lacks conviction and careful planning when it comes to implementing policies.

Last April, for example, the government announced plans to raise Taiwan's electricity tariffs, some of the lowest in the world, by 16 per cent to 35 per cent following years of losses by government oil and power firms. But the shock announcement took most by surprise and sparked a backlash, including criticisms of the "extravagant" practices of Taipower, the electricity provider. Prices of many goods went up as businesses braced for impact.

Barely a month later, Ma backed down, saying the planned hike would be carried out in stages, with the first to be effected in June. There has been no further increment since.

Ma and Premier Sean Chen now face another major challenge - pension reforms that will affect over 10 million of the island's 23 million people.

Work on overhauling pension schemes for teachers, other civil servants and military personnel began after the government announced in October that the pension funds were at risk of going into deficit in 2017 and becoming bankrupt by 2027.

Su has threatened to recall Ma and "anti-reform" legislators of the KMT if the government fails to respond satisfactorily to criticisms.

Any presidential recall motion requires the support of at least two-thirds of Parliament's 113 lawmakers. Given that the KMT controls 60 seats, any recall action is likely to be merely symbolic.

But Prof Wang said it would still be damaging to the president, who won the 2008 election by a landslide margin, and his party. "(Former president) Chen Shui-bian was subjected to three recall motions submitted by the then opposition KMT, which were all blocked by the then ruling DPP. Those moves, plus a massive demonstration against the corrupt leader, sent his reputation to rock bottom and look what happened in 2008."


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