BY CHRIS SZABLA
In elections held on March 22, Ma Ying-jeou SJD ’81 captured the presidency of the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan. Ma, 57, will likely bring Taiwan closer to the mainland economically, a policy deeply unpopular within the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The race was initially expected to be a nearly runaway victory for Ma, who has enjoyed a sort of celebrity appeal and has been compared to John F. Kennedy. The battle for the presidency became tight, however, as protests in Tibet caused jitters in the island state about engagement with the People’s Republic.
According to Professor William Alford, Vice Dean for International Legal Studies, both positive factors about Ma and negative perceptions of the opposition contributed to the HLS alum’s victory. Alford praised Ma’s integrity, for one, calling him a “straight arrow.” He also noted that Ma’s family was from the mainland, and his subsequent popularity was a testament to his ability to overcome suspicion of mainlanders in Taiwan. Ma, Alford said, had managed to remain part of his part, the Kuomintang (KMT) without “carrying their taint” of past difficulties.
Equal if not worse difficulties had beset the DPP under President Chen Shui-Ban. Anxiety and a loss of basic confidence in the government had resulted from allegations of corruption and a faltering economy, Alford said. One major contribution to Taiwan’s recent economic difficulties may have been President Chen’s movement of the ROC toward a more overt independence. “Ambiguity” in the relationship between Taiwan and the mainland “did give a lot of space” to the island state, Alford maintained, “and Taiwan flourished.”
By moving away from the mainland and its moving economy, however, Taiwan decoupled itself from the most dynamic economic force in the region just as its labor costs had risen to the point at which investment was drying up. What was more, the growing wedge between Taiwan and the mainland had put the U.S., one of the state’s few potential allies, in a deeply awkward position. This did not, Alford noted, go unnoticed by the Taiwanese people.
Despite the DPP’s political misfortunes, Ma’s presidency will not be without challenges. The recent demonstrations on the mainland are but one. Ma faces some discontent within his own party among insiders who were irritated by his rise. The DPP, meanwhile, does retain some powerful political firepower in the form of another Harvard Law alum, Annette Lu LLM ’78, the current vice president.
Lu was among the lead contenders vying to run for the DPP against Ma, though the task eventually fell to Frank Hsieh. She has had testy relations with the KMT since her imprisonment during the period of one-party rule on the island, which did not come to a formal close until the early 1990s. Ma actually helped secure her release – but this has hardly dampened their rivalry, which is a product of the island’s later democratization.
For now, Ma is only president-elect, and can rest on his laurels until taking office May 22. He is the first HLS alum to be elected president of Taiwan, and among the very few HLS alums to become a head of state. Others include U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes ’45 – that’s 1845 – former president of Ireland Mary Robinson LLM ’68, and former Indian President Shankar Dayal Sharma.