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Sunday, June 24, 2007

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Ma-Siew: Your Dad's KMT

Foreign media coverage of the selection of Vincent Siew as Ma Ying-jeou's running mate has so far been suggesting that Siew will help Ma at the polls. See Bloomberg's coverage of the selection here and polls in the pro-blue media here.

The first Bloomberg piece quotes the ubiquitous Philip Yang as saying:

It's clear that Ma wants to appeal to the middle-ground voters with Siew's financial and economics background,'' Philip Yang, an associate professor of political science at National Taiwan University, said today in a telephone interview.


This could be a tough sell especially to working class and rural voters outside of Taipei and the high tech industry. Siew, as the article notes, is the founder of the Cross-Straits Common Market Foundation and advocates a single Chinese market that would encompass Taiwan. While this will go over well with the business and finance crowd in Taipei, there are also many people on the lower end of the economic register who are justifiably worried about the idea of opening Taiwan's markets even further to Chinese goods and services.

And as Frank Hsieh immediately pointed out, Siew was deeply involved in the now-discredited move toward BOT projects under Lee Teng-hui and Taiwan's accession to the WTO. Both policies are now deeply unpopular in Taiwan because they both violate Taiwan's social contract in which the government is responsible for taking care of the people rather than building expensive privatized infrastructure that ordinary people can't afford to use or making elderly farmers compete with cheap Chinese produce or international agro-business.

Another expert quoted in the Bloomberg piece suggests that Siew will help Ma down south:


``The choice of Vincent Siew will help relations with the mainland, as he has been promoting cross-Strait exchanges over the past years,'' said Kevin Yang, Taipei-based chief investment officer at Paradigm Asset Management Co., which oversees $360 million in assets. ``He'll also help get votes in central and southern Taiwan, as he's from the south.''


But when Siew ran on the Lien Chan ticket in 2000, Siew's presence on the ticket led to a whopping 23% of the vote in Chiayi City and County, where Siew is from. That's exactly equivalent to what Lien got nationwide, and Lien did even worse in other southern cities and counties. So how is Siew going to be able help Ma from down south when he did absolutely nothing for Lien in 2000? As Chiu Lili as city councilor from Tainan wrote in today's China Times, thinking that green voters down south are going to vote for Siew because he is from Chiayi demonstrates a fundemental misunderstanding of the psychology of southern green voters. Those voters vote for candidates they feel share their experience of struggle against the KMY regime and have a similar lifestyle. Siew, a colorless technocrat who served the KMT regime in Taipei and abroad, brings little to appeal to southern voters.

More seriously though, Siew is just plain old. At 68 he looks even older than he actually is. He has incredibly little charisma and is a poor public speaker given to bureaucratic banalities. His main public image is Smiling Siew (微笑老蕭)--an Uncle Tom-like Taiwanese figure in the KMT whose response to government policy being questioned or conflict was smiling to buy time. In short, he's your Dad's KMT. Ma, who already has the image of being uptight, prissy, and conservative, has gone off and chosen a party elder from yesterday's KMT. The KMT's biggest image problem is that they are a monolithic organization with no fresh faces and are incapable of change after consecutive defeats in presidential election. Ma has just proved that once again.

Ma sees putting Siew on the ticket as part of his strategy to focus on the economy. Siew, Ma gushed, built Taiwan into a trading power and spearheaded major economic development projects like the fifth and sixth naptha crackers. But the problem, as Yang Tai-shun pointed out also in today's China Times, is that if the Taiwanese poeople are so impressed with Siew's economic record, why didn't more of them vote for the Lien-Siew ticket?

Ma's strategy of trying to focus on the economy and not the DPP forte of national identity and the future of Taiwan is probably Ma's best best, but is unlikely to succeed. It's true that although the economy has grown a healthy 4% or more in each of the last three years, many ordinary people haven't been feeling much gain. (Things must be very different from those people who have made a killing in real estate over the past three years or on the stock market right now, but that's a different story.) So when Ma asks ordinary Taiwanese people if they are better off after eight years of DPP government, he looks pretty savvy because the answer is going to be no. Harping on irrelevant comparisons with South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong also helps--'Taiwan used to be the first among the four dragons, and now we are the last.'

But I think this strategy will ultimately fail, and Siew provides an important clue. What Ma is actually advocating is profoundly conservative. In effect, he saying "Let's go back to the good old days when Taiwan's economy was growing by leaps and bounds." Elections are all about giving people a vision for the future, and a conservative vision of a future that is actually an imagined past is a powerful one. But Ma's conservative vision is going to founder on the rocks of China because while Ma is somewhat improbably suggesting that Taiwan can return to the economic past by opening up to China, voters will see that in his vision of the future, political freedoms are going to be exchanged for economic gains. It is in this context that his comments on Singapore as being a model for Taiwan are so significant. That is a vision of a constricted future rather than an expansive one, and I doubt very much that enough voters are going to buy into it for Ma to win.

In sum, Siew was an incredibly poor choice and one that highlights Ma's conservatism.

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