The political storm
Aug 20th 2009
From The Economist print edition
After its dismal handling of the disaster, the government, too, is covered in mud
A FORTNIGHT after Typhoon Morakot first struck Taiwan on August 6th the storm continued to wreak havoc on the island. Extensive flooding and landslides had claimed some 500 lives, according to Ma Ying-jeou, the president, and caused at least $2 billion-worth of damage to property. About 400 people were thought to have died in southern Kaohsiung county alone. There, the authorities have given up hope of finding more survivors in Hsiao Lin, the hardest-hit village, which a landslide had buried in mud.
Morakot is also doing political damage. President Ma faces harsh criticism for his government’s slow response to the disaster, and in particular for its surprising decision to spurn foreign offers of aid in the early stages. Three senior officials have already offered their resignations. The reputation of Mr Ma himself has taken a knock.
The first to offer up his political head was Andrew Hsia, a deputy foreign minister, who took responsibility on August 17th for the rejection of foreign offers of assistance. Two days later Chen Chao-min, the defence secretary, and Hsueh Hsiang-chuan, secretary-general of the cabinet, also offered to resign. A wholesale cabinet shuffle is to follow next month, and other senior officials may not survive in their posts even that long.
Mr Ma has long been seen as a smooth operator, able to glide unscathed through political turmoil. But this time the apologies he has made may not be enough to see him through. An opinion poll this week by TVBS, a Taiwanese news channel, showed a dramatic drop in his approval rating: by 25 percentage points since June, to an all-time low of 16%. Other polls give him higher ratings but show a similar decline.
Reinforcing this message, angry residents of Hsiao Lin angrily scolded Mr Ma on August 19th when he made his first visit there since the typhoon. Viewers across Taiwan saw the president quietly endure tongue-lashings from survivors and the bereaved. After a comfortable election victory, Mr Ma took office 15 months ago with promises to focus on the economy and improve ties with China. He has already given warning that Taiwan’s third-quarter economic figures will suffer because of Morakot. But he has also promised a more efficient recovery effort and an investigation into the shortcomings in the government response. At least neither he nor his parliamentarians face elections this year, though there will be local polls.
In one striking proposal, Mr Ma said Taiwan’s army would reorder its priorities towards handling big disasters. Now, he told a news conference, our enemy is not necessarily the people across the Taiwan Strait but nature. Taiwan would cancel orders for American military helicopters and buy disaster-relief helicopters instead.
The ever-complex and ever-delicate relationship between Taiwan and China was bound to play a role in Morakot’s political aftermath. For its part, China was quick to respond, not only expressing sympathy for the people it refers to as “compatriots” but also providing $29m in relief funds, prefabricated houses, sleeping bags and sanitation supplies.
Yet many people in Taiwan also saw China as the reason why the government had to think twice before accepting help from America or Japan. Hints that Taiwan might be enhancing its military or official links with other powers tend to provoke Chinese bluster. More likely, the government simply underestimated the scale of the disaster—the worst storm in 50 years. After all, on August 16th, an American cargo plane arrived. It was the first American military aircraft to land in Taiwan in the 30 years since America severed its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of China.