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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

FT.com / World / Asia-Pacific - Taiwan's president fails to get his priorities right

FT.com / World / Asia-Pacific - Taiwan's president fails to get his priorities rightTaiwan's president fails to get his priorities right
By Kathrin Hille in Taipei
Published: December 28 2005 02:00 | Last updated: December 28 2005 02:00

In just five years President Chen Shui-bian has fallen from being Taiwan's hero of democracy to become its most reviled politician.
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In 2000, Mr Chen swept away a ruling party that had held power for more than 50 years, carried by a wave of hope for political and judicial reform and clean government that was backed by 70 per cent of the population.

Now, according to a recent opinion poll, he is left with 10 per cent of the vote. After a crushing defeat in local elections this month, even his Democratic Progressive party is turning against him.

"We desperately need to reform and the key problem is the president," says Shen Fu-hsiung, an outspoken veteran DPP politician.

Mr Chen appears to be at a loss as to what happened. His staff have contacted scholars asking for advice about what he is doing wrong. Just about everything, is the answer. "The lethal blow has been the growing impression over the past year that this government is corrupt," says Emile Sheng, a professor at Soochow University in Taipei.

The Kuomintang, Taiwan's former ruling party, had long been viewed as corrupt. This year a string of scandals involving DPP-appointed officials has dragged the party into the same trouble.

The financial regulator's chief investigator was found to been in close social contact with suspects in an insider trading scandal. Then, irregularities were uncovered in a public transport project in the southern city of Kaohsiung, and now a long-time associate of Mr Chen is one of the prime suspects in bid rigging and corruption.

The deterioration of the DPP's ethical standards has been the last straw. Critics say the president has lost people's trust because of his erratic leadership style and his failure to formulate and execute reforms.

"I don't believe that clean government is the most important issue on our reform agenda," says Lin Cho-shui, a veteran DPP lawmaker. "A much bigger problem is that Chen Shui-bian's mysterious leadership style and his short-term opportunistic decision-making don't work any more."

Mr Chen's government has frequently changed policy direction, most obviously in relations with China. After pledging more economic exchanges across the Strait early in his first term, he later turned to aggressive anti-China rhetoric and last year played to pro-independence sentiment in a re-election campaign that provoked the mainland.

The president made his about-turns without consulting his cabinet or going through government channels. Mr Chen has changed premiers four times and the administration has become inefficient. The government's erratic course has also exacerbated its problems with the opposition, which controls parliament.

"We are left without proper communication between the party and the president, and relations between the president and his cabinet, as well as between the executive and the legislative, are in disarray," complains Kuan Bi-ling, a DPP lawmaker close to Frank Hsieh, the premier.

Mr Lin adds that the president's authoritarian style has prevented a debate on the party's stance on national identity and relations with China, which should have taken place long ago.

Presidential aides defend Mr Chen. "He needs to respond to different groups in a society which is deeply split in its view towards national identity and its relations with the mainland," says one of his staff.

But with little more than two years until the next presidential election and big city mayoral polls, and legislative elections coming up next year and in 2007, the DPP no longer accepts these arguments.

"We have been in power for almost six years and it's been a complete failure," says Lee Chun-yee, a DPP lawmaker.

Lee Wen-chung, another heavyweight in the DPP's legislative caucus, blames Mr Chen for the DPP government's weak policy record. "Our party's platform says we want economic liberalisation but at the same time we demand fairness and social security. Since the president has failed to set priorities, nothing gets done at all."

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