A recent survey in Taiwan shows that even as the government has earned points across several measures capturing performance on human-rights and liberties– such as enhancing religious freedoms, electoral freedoms, and freedom of movement – it suffers on the issue of corruption control. On that front, the government received a score of 1.8 out of 5 – the lowest among the survey-questions – indicating substantial dissatisfaction with the government in the control of corruption.
What has this to do with the President? In particular, given that President Ma is constitutionally prohibited from running for another term, is public support a meaningful constraint on president’s agenda or powers?
In two regards, the answer is: Yes.
First, public support affects the legislative success of a president. In particular, studies show that presidents’ legislative success is highly tied to public satisfaction. That is, legislatures are highly sensitive to public approval of the president in passing the president’s bills, so that a low public approval may signal a legislature’s greater willingness to challenge the president’s policy agenda. It is probably not surprisingly that legislators are even less constrained to toe the president’s lines when faced with a term-limited president in the final term. Thus, in terms of pushing his policy agenda, notwithstanding his final term as President, it behoves President Ma to pay attention to public approval and, correspondingly, the issues that engender public disapproval.
Second, the particular area of public disaffection – corruption – should also be a source of concern for the President. Corruption – defined as the failure to exercise impartiality of government authority  – has galvanized widespread protests in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia, and studies show that it is at the root of the Colored Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. As an emergent democracy, Taiwan can ill-afford such protests that take time, effort, and other resources away from the key tasks of institution-building and policy-performance upon which political and social stability – not to mention democratic consolidation – rests. Again, it behoves President Ma, who has seen his share of protests this year, to take clear steps in demonstrating efforts at controlling corruption to avert its potential to galvanize protests.
Interestingly, the survey was commissioned by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, whose current chair is Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng. That is the same Speaker embroiled in the ongoing and public political dispute with President Ma Jing-yeou since September, 2013, when the President moved to expel Wang from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party – which would also end Wang’s position as speaker – for alleged influence-peddling. Wang has won public sympathy as well as a court injunction against his ouster from the legislature, pending the outcome of his legal battle against the KMT’s decision to revoke his membership. In contrast, the President has seen his approval plummet as a result of the case, partly due to public suspicion of wiretapping used as evidence for the case, the President’s overstepping of constitutional separation of powers in Taiwan’s semi-presidential system, and Ma’s discharge of a rival.