Possible Lessons from the ECFA Debate

No or only few numbers were available on Sunday – but the picture has become much clearer now in terms of how the Taiwanese public rates president Ma Ying-jeou‘s and DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen‘s performances during Sunday’s televised debate on the government’s core project, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China.

There seems to be a considerable error margin, or a big difference anyway,  between the surveys taken by TVBS public opinion poll of April 26, and the one taken by United Daily News.

According to TVBS, 41 per cent of the interviewees watched the debate, while 59 per cent didn’t. The numbers are 46 and 54 per cent respectively in the United Daily News poll. The most interesting findings by TVBS are that if Ma and Tsai run in the 2012 presidential elections, 38 per cent would vote for Ma, and 28 per cent for Tsai Ing-wen, and that the number of those who support the ECFA rose by three per cent, to 41 per cent, after the debate.

But the picture seems to be comprehensive enough to tell that Ma convinced more of the audience than Tsai. The United Daily News poll says that 42 per cent believe that Ma did better in the debate, while only 30 per cent believe that Tsai did better. Bot polls suggest that the debate helped the public to understand the ECFA.

Much of the English-speaking blogosphere seems to correspond with these impressions.

My own impression on Sunday was that Ma’s and Tsai’s performances were  equally matched.

I still see it that way. And maybe some or much of Ma’s win in public confidence can be explained with the high expectations Tsai Ing-wen was facing. These expectations were raised before the broadcast. There were high expectations in the Pan-Green camp, and the government on their part did what they could to raise them further, to the degree that the presidential office complained that the president had too little time to prepare for the debate.

There may be lessons to be drawn. For the DPP and the Pan-Green camp it could be the one that in the long run, you can’t portray an intelligent man as an idiot, and don’t portray people as sellouts without good evidence. It will most likely backfire, sooner or later.

For the KMT and the Pan-Blue camp a conclusion could be that  there is no reason to shy away from stating ones case whereever possible. This is true for a referendum, too. In a democratic society, people want both leadership, and a say of their own on crucial issues. When leadership is provided, chances are that the leaders will have their way, with public consent, and corresponding legitimacy.

The debate and its results can’t provide answers on the issue – the ECFA – itself. The way the audience view the planned agreement has probably  shifted much less – by three per cent or so  only – than their views of the president.

There is no reason for the KMT to try to torpedo a referendum, by every possible tool that may be available in the reviewing process. The TVBS poll suggests that 41 per cent now support the ECFA, and that 33 per cent do not. 26 per cent are undecided. And according to United Daily News’ poll, the debate shifted the opinions of 6 per cent of the viewers – 81 per cent of these six from opposition to support, and 10 per cent from support to opposition.
These are no bad prerequisites for the government for either winning a referendum, or seeing it becoming invalid because of a lack of participation.

May I start dreaming for a moment? Maybe the KMT even discovers that democratic means provide less safe, but more sustainable results than manipulation, and abuse of power.

The DPP, the TSU, and other Pan-Green parties on the other hand, should accept any outcome of a referendum, even if it conflicts with their goals. No matter the gravity of the issue – if the voters can’t count as the final authority, who else should? The Pan-Grens, if back to power from 2012, can’t expect the KMT to be a loyal opposition now, if they don’t set a good example themselves now. Once they are back in power, it will be their turn to expand Taiwan’s scope in the global economy, with countries other than China.

Maybe a process of continuous improvement has started on Sunday.

2 Comments to “Possible Lessons from the ECFA Debate”

  1. I believe that much of the opposition to the ECFA has been engendered by Ma himself. By failing to support a referendum and by restricting the release of information about the pact, he has allowed people to surmise that there is something in the pact that he wishes to keep secret.

    This debate has given Ma a boost, certainly. However, the debate alone has not been a game changer. Remember that Wu said that there had to be consensus within Taiwan before the government would sign the ECFA, and that he believed a good target number for support was 60 percent. If, after a winning debate, a deep-blue paper says that support for the ECFA is at 41 percent, and this is one of the highest numbers available, then one can say that the Ma administration has still not presented a convincing case.

    However, I think that one important move on the part of Ma could start to reduce opposition to the pact, even if the 60 percent support number looks unattainable. If the administration-appointed referendum review committee allows the TSU referendum to go ahead, Taiwanese may begin to feel that the government does not have as much to hide as they suspected.

    I agree with you that the government has nothing to fear. To win a referendum, Ma does not have to win the hearts of over 50 percent of Taiwanese. He just has to get over 50 percent of voters to vote and get over half of those to vote YES. If we factor out the people who have no opinion or who are on the fence, and overlook the fact that many people still don’t understand the pact, supporters still outweigh opponents. The only risk for him is that the threshold may not be reached. If the government went ahead regardless, it would open itself to claims of hypocrisy. After all, the KMT greatly criticized Chen’s drive to buy arms from the US despite the fact that the arms referendum failed due to lack of participation.

    On balance, I think that this is a risk that Ma can afford to take. If he doesn’t and the referendum is rejected, the DPP and TSU will once again raise cries that the government has something to hide, and Ma’s claim that he does not oppose a referendum will be used against him. He will look like a fool.

    While I have no love for Ma, I hope, for his sake, that he agrees with you that allowing the electorate a say in deciding his policies is the best way of maintaining the social cohesion of Taiwan.


  2. I have no love for Ma either – if Tsai chose to run against him and if I was eligible to vote, I’d most probably vote for her. I think another important lesson from the debate is that it was no “waste of time” at all, certainly not “just a show”, as was said in at least one pan-blue paper, and that a referendum wouldn’t be a “waste of tax money”, as has also been said. If the threshold of 50% participation isn’t reached, I’d say that most citizens simply prefer to leave the issue to the government – abstention would be a statement, too.


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