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25 February 2024

Taiwan president adds poll win to straight-A resume


Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who won a second four-year term in elections Saturday, can add his unexpectedly easy victory at the polls to a glittering resume worthy of the archetypal straight-A student.

The 61-year-old Ma has had much to play on during his political career -- good looks, a great education including a stint at Harvard and luck.

Even so, for most of his re-election campaign he did not look like a shoo-in, as many Taiwanese appeared unimpressed and the Kuomintang nationalist leader was locked in a tight battle with opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen.

"His re-election campaign has been rather difficult and the reason is he has disappointed many who voted for him four years ago," Chang Lin-cheng, a political scientist at National Taiwan University, said before the vote.

Chang cited a tendency to let political visions -- such as a recent push for a peace agreement with China after a civil war that actually ended in 1949 -- flounder when even moderate opposition flares up.

Ma was born in Hong Kong in 1950 to parents from the Chinese mainland. That has become something of a political handicap recently, as Taiwan started to develop a more pronounced sense of identity.

But it did not appear to put off the voters Saturday who gave him four more years in an election race that was not nearly as close as many had predicted.

"I'm a Chinese but I'm also a Taiwanese," Ma, who moved to Taiwan as an infant, has said repeatedly.

Speaking in public, Ma often turns to the Taiwanese dialect, revealing a flair for languages that also smoothed his way to the best foreign education, crowned with a doctorate from Harvard Law School.

The English skills helped set off Ma's political career, which traces back to 1981, when he was an interpreter for Taiwan's then president Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Kuomintang supremo Chiang Kai-shek.

In 1991 he was named vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan's top China policy-making body, where he stayed until becoming justice minister two years later.

Ma quit as minister in 1996 amid reports that a crackdown on corruption he had initiated had irked some conglomerates and their influential friends in government.

After a brief stint in academia, Ma was elected Taipei mayor in 1998 and stayed in that job until 2006.

He was indicted for corruption, accused of misusing 11 million Taiwan dollars (about ê342,000) in special expenses but was later cleared by the courts, enabling him to pursue his presidential bid.

His landslide win in the presidential election in March 2008 was the triumph of his career and he saw his popularity rise to an all-time high of 79 percent in the days after the polls.

But his approval ratings took a severe hit after Typhoon Morakot slammed into Taiwan in August 2009. The storm killed about 800 people and Ma's government was berated by the public for its slow response.

Its rating has only recovered somewhat since then, lingering around 40 percent in recent months, as he was hit by criticism for allegedly picking mediocre candidates for important government posts.

Despite diminishing support, Ma has received considerable kudos -- especially in the United States -- for engineering a drastic improvement in ties with China, removing at least temporarily a hotspot of tension in the region.

At home, Ma and his aides have highlighted the economic advantages of improved ties, manifested in a sweeping trade pact signed with China in mid-2010.

But observers criticise the agreement for being of little use to the vast majority of people and for only exacerbating a widening divide between Taiwan's financial haves and have-nots.

The strains of office have left their mark on a once youthful-looking politician.

The president used to be affectionately known as "Little Brother Ma". Some now believe "Elder Brother Ma" is more apt.