HONG KONG — Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian’s greatest successes were scored in 2000 and again in 2004, when he won two presidential elections. His performance as president in the last seven years, however, has been mediocre.
No doubt, that is why he is spending more time campaigning than he is running Taiwan. As a result, both foreign investors and local people have been complaining about the state of the economy and the cost of living.
Chen has honed electioneering to a fine art. In fact, looking at the Taiwan press, it often appears as though he, rather than Frank Hsieh, is the candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in March’s presidential election, running against Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang.
Because Chen occupies the bully pulpit, he commands the media’s attention and, almost every day, continues to savage Ma while Hsieh is reduced to the role of a spectator.
Hsieh has said Chen is the boss when it comes to national strategy but that he himself will decide campaign strategy. However, the newspapers day after day are filled with reports of Chen castigating Ma rather than steering the ship of state. For example, recently Chen warned voters that Taiwan would never be able to join the United Nations if Ma were to win the presidency — clearly intruding into the sphere of campaign strategy.
In fact, Chen went so far in his electioneering as to quote from an inscription on Ma’s deceased father’s urn. Chen said the inscription called for the unification and strengthening of China and said that suggested that Ma himself is not committed to Taiwan.
Meanwhile, candidate Hsieh is caught in the middle. He cannot disavow his party’s president and, at the same time, cannot be seen as agreeing with candidate Ma’s emphasis on the need to give priority to the economy.
Last week Hsieh announced plans to review a cap on Taiwanese investment in the mainland if he is elected. The next day, however, Chen declared that the cap limiting Taiwanese companies to investing 40 percent of their net assets in China-based ventures should remain.
All that Hsieh can do in this situation is to try to take the middle ground, emphasizing the importance both of maintaining Taiwan’s sovereignty and of developing the economy.
In doing so, however, he has in effect consented to being overshadowed by the president and has turned over to Chen the right to run his campaign.
Chen’s position is reflected by his statement: “A good economy is no guarantee of electoral victory.” Even former President Lee Teng-hui has criticized the DPP government for its “disoriented economic policy,” which he says has led to a widening wealth disparity.
And so we have the curious situation of both presidential candidates differing from the president on the importance of the economy. But unless Hsieh can take back from the president the right to run his campaign, it will be difficult for him to step out from the president’s shadow, just as it will be difficult for voters to differentiate between him and the president.
So far, Hsieh has been busy denying that there are differences between him and the president on either economic or cross-strait policies, when he should be asserting himself as a leader and making it clear what his own position is.
Last week, Hsieh said plaintively that he could not tell Chen what to do since the latter was the president, but that he would be able to implement his own policies if elected president.
But since Chen is also the party chairman, voters may not be convinced that Hsieh will be his own man even if elected president.
All this can only help Ma, since Chen is deeply unpopular in Taiwan, what with the poor state of the economy and the corruption charges that his wife and former members of his administration face. In fact, it is likely that Chen himself will face corruption charges once he steps down from office.
Come next March, the voters of Taiwan will have to decide if they want the DPP to remain in power or if they prefer to have the KMT return to power after eight years in the political wilderness. So far, Chen, by dominating the news, has not given the two candidates a fair chance to present their own platforms.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist. E-mail: Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org