Taiwan – Ma’s Presidential Blues

Taiwan’s President Ma jing-yeou has seen better days. The leader and his Kuomingtang (KMT) party-led Pan-Blue camp swept into the executive and legislature in 2008 and effectively took control of the semi-presidential system. The 2008 run ended the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s 8-year hold on the presidency and reduced the DPP’s plurality in the legislature from 40 percent to 24 percent (although the DPP increased electoral support in that election). Fast-forward to 2012: Ma successfully retained the presidential office, and the KMT-led Pan-Blue camp retained its legislative majority, albeit reduced to 64 seats. Analysts and pollsters noted the Taiwan electorate’s endorsement of the KMT-directive to continue to build ties with China, and it seemed that all was on track for the reelected leader and party to focus on reviving a weakening economy under conditions of the global financial crisis.

Yet, less than two years later, President Ma appears to be in a battle for his political life: he is facing single-digit approval ratings and mass protests calling for his resignation from the office.

Political development clearly benefits from greater government accountability, but when citizens mobilize to demand for greater accountability – such as these protests against President Ma – the vitality of the thousands or tens of thousands acting beyond periodic elections spurs efforts to harness that momentum towards concrete, documentable outcomes. These include demands for executive recall or even constitutional change.

It is no small irony that even as the protests against Ma are founded on the personalistic nature of his presidency – in particular, his effort to oust legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng is seen as a political move that oversteps the separation of powers in semi-presidential and presidential systems – some of the changes demanded by protestors also move away from stable, institutional (constitutional) politics. It is, thus, opportune to consider: what changes improve the survival of the president as an institution in the semi-presidential system system but not that of the occupant?

Studies on semi-presidential systems note the instability of the political system in minority and deadlock conditions, particularly in comparison to their parliamentary counterparts.[1] These studies have spurred additional works that emphasize the importance of distinguishing between the performance of the political system and government’s policy performance to ensure government accountability without rejecting the political system in the process.[2]

Based on these studies, the answers are clear. Presidential approval/disapproval are fertile grounds for change if these changes relate to government accountability for policy performance. In the context of Taiwan, they may be used to impel changes that underlie policy performance and government accountability for that performance. Yet, importantly, caution must be exercised if approval/disapproval and protests are used to undergird institutional changes to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The term limits on the president means that Ma will not be eligible to stand for another election. This means that voters will not have the satisfaction of heaving him out of office. This may explain the swelling of protests to oust him out mid-term. Yet, it is no small irony that one recommendation for constitutional change to increase greater accountability and presidential approval while stabilizing the presidential system is to remove the term limits.[3]


[1] See some excellent discussions in Elgie (2011), Cheibub and Chernykh (2008), and Samuels and Shugart (2010).

[2] Mattes and Bratton (2007), Duch (2001), Yap (2013)

[3] Cheibub (2002)

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