Taiwan’s Leader Faces Anger Over Storm Response
TAIPEI, Taiwan — Flags are flying at half-staff during three days of national mourning to honor those killed by Typhoon Morakot two weeks ago. But anger, not sadness, remains the prevailing sentiment across Taiwan as President Ma Ying-jeou grapples with his worst political crisis since taking office last year.
Despite repeated apologies for a slow response to the storm — which left at least 650 people dead or missing after record rain caused huge landslides — Mr. Ma has been kept busy warding off the skeptical news media and his political opponents, and calming furious survivors.
“The government is sorry,” Mr. Ma said Saturday. “It failed to fulfill its responsibility to protect you.”
Political analysts and even Mr. Ma’s allies in the governing Nationalist Party worry that Typhoon Morakot could become his “Katrina moment,” a blot on his legacy and perhaps an irreversible turning point just 15 months into his administration. But while the post-Morakot posturing makes for great political theater in Taiwan, the outside world is watching to see whether the episode will affect Mr. Ma’s efforts to bring Taiwan closer to China.
Mr. Ma won office, in part, on a platform of improved ties to the mainland, but the pace of rapprochement has unnerved some voters who are mindful that reunification is the stated goal of the Communist Party in Beijing, even if it means sending the People’s Liberation Army across the Taiwan Strait.
Since taking office, Mr. Ma has scored points by bolstering economic ties, starting direct mail service and liberalizing travel between Taiwan and the mainland. But those opposed to closer relations say the president’s inaction in the days after the storm, including an initial rejection of foreign aid, suggests that he is increasingly beholden to Beijing, a charge he and his political allies say is absurd.
Even Mr. Ma’s decision to accept emergency supplies from the United States, Taiwan’s staunchest ally, produced hand-wringing among those who questioned why military insignia on American aircraft were masked.
To make matters worse, during a news conference on Tuesday Mr. Ma suggested that the main task of Taiwan’s army should be prevention and rescue. “But now our enemy is not necessarily the people across the Taiwan Strait but nature,” he said, adding that an order for 60 American-made Blackhawk helicopters would be cut by 15, and the savings used to buy disaster relief aircraft.
Adding fuel to speculation over his true intentions was the government’s failure to apply last week for membership in the United Nations, a largely symbolic gesture that has occurred annually since 1993.
At the other end of the spectrum, advocates for closer ties between the two longtime enemies say that those aiming to thwart reunification are using the typhoon to their advantage.
Su Hao, an analyst at the government-run China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, blamed CNN for publishing an online survey last week in which 82 percent of respondents said Mr. Ma should resign for his sluggish response to the storm.
Even though the poll did not claim to be scientific, Mr. Su accused the network of acting at the behest of the White House. “The U.S. government has always taken the stance of supporting the status quo in the Taiwan Strait,” he said, a reference to the ambiguous state that defines Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China, and its democratic political system.
Meanwhile, it was difficult to find anyone sympathetic to Mr. Ma’s predicament last week. On Saturday, during a memorial service for typhoon victims and a stop at a shelter for displaced residents, Mr. Ma’s remorseful bows and vows of speedy reconstruction did little to assuage the protesters. “How would you feel if your family members had died?” one woman yelled, according to The Taipei Times. “If you cannot do the job well, let someone else do it.”
Chao Yung-mau, dean of the school of social sciences at Taiwan National University, said he was not hopeful that Mr. Ma could regain public confidence, especially if reconstruction and recovery efforts flag in the coming weeks. “I don’t have enough confidence to think he will bounce back,” he said. “I’m pessimistic about his situation.”
The opposition Democratic Progressive Party has not been shy in exploiting Mr. Ma’s misfortunes. Last week, opposition legislators said they would consider introducing a vote of no-confidence. Members of the Control Yuan, an investigative branch of the government, have begun an inquiry into whether misconduct by high-ranking officials warranted impeachment. Mr. Ma has said he will consider shuffling his cabinet; three senior aides, including his defense minister, have offered to resign.
In interviews last week, even supporters described him as aloof, indecisive and inclined to technocratic language. Some suggested he was too proud of his law degree from Harvard and perhaps too eager to show his English fluency to the foreign media. “He’s had too much of an easy life and doesn’t really feel other people’s pain,” Chen Ping-hui, 50, said as she made dumplings at a Taipei restaurant.
In an interview, one of his advisers, Lin Hou-Wang, described Mr. Ma as intelligent and hard working but at times too conciliatory. “All his life he’s been so civil and so polite, a Mr. Nice Guy well liked by everybody,” said Mr. Lin, a philosophy professor at National Taiwan University who also helped Mr. Ma during his successful campaign for mayor of Taipei. “You could say he does not have enough training dealing with adversity.”
Chou Chia-cheng, 70, a retired banker who voted for Mr. Ma, said Taiwan’s politicized media and power-hungry opposition were magnifying his missteps. “I’m not sure I’ll vote for Ma again, but we should let the man finish the job,” he said. “The truth is, it rained a lot. I just think Ma got unlucky.”