New Cabinet unlikely to deliver on Ma’s promise of reform

The China Post news staff

The ongoing Cabinet reshuffle has been greeted generally by skepticism about President Ma Ying-jeou’s promise of reform following the ruling Kuomintang’s (KMT) humiliating defeat in last week’s local elections. There have been few surprises concerning the new lineup already announced, as many members of the recently disbanded Cabinet are set to retain their jobs, while others will be relocated to other positions. The biggest change is of course the departure of Premier Jiang Yi-huah, who will be replaced by his former deputy, Vice Premier Mao Chi-kuo. So the new lineup won’t really be new at all.

Arguments in favor of such a lineup basically emphasize stability and practicality as minimal change will enable a smooth transition. But if stability has to take priority over reform, why did the Cabinet have to resign in the first place? Why did Jiang have to go? Jiang offered to resign shortly after preliminary results showed the KMT would suffer its biggest election defeat in decades, presumably to take political responsibility. Ma approved the resignation immediately. Jiang’s resignation, many believe, was supposed to be a buffer against the shockwaves about to hit Ma. But the defeat was too immense, and Ma later had to relinquish his KMT leadership in order to placate angry party supporters. Despite his promise of reform, Ma’s post-election moves have been hardly designed to do so. His initial changes were more or less knee-jerk reactions in attempts to protect himself. Neither is the Cabinet reshuffle meant to make the reforms that Ma promises materialize. The reality is actually preventing the Cabinet reshuffle from providing a ��wow�� factor that could raise eyebrows in the nation. In the coming months and the period before the legislative and presidential elections in early 2016, the Cabinet will be acting more or less like a caretaker government that can do little. Even if the Cabinet wanted to be aggressive, it would be facing a Legislature whose members would be more interested in defending their seats than working with the government. Legislators will be preoccupied with their re-election campaigns, which will probably start as early as March. Few of them will have much time or the willingness to tackle reform issues, particularly controversial ones, at the risk of angering voters. So who would be willing to take over in an impotent Cabinet? Reform-minded political figures would be very unlikely to take over a premier post that could last for a little more than a year, during which nothing much would be achieved. No aspiring political figures would take risk their careers by gambling on such an embarrassing period. And here comes Mao, who seems such a natural and safe choice. Compared to the ��stars�� and heavyweights of the younger generations inside the KMT �X such as the outgoing Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin and the freshly re-elected New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu �X Mao never looked like he would ever stand a chance of becoming premier. That means Mao will have nothing to lose if he fails to perform while filling the post. But that also means that Mao will be very unlikely to play aggressively if it means risking the creation of controversies that could cut short his stint. In fact, by picking Mao, the president has sent out a strong message: the Cabinet needs stability and Ma is still in firm control of the government. Any of the KMT stars and heavyweights taking the post would have been a direct challenge to his authority. But Ma will remain a lame duck. He will be in control of a bunch of unpopular officials who have failed to help defend the KMT, and yet will probably continue doing what they have been doing, or continue failing to do what they have been supposed to do in the coming months.