The mayor of Taipei approaches politics much as he runs triathlons: Ma Ying-jeou is slow and steady but always ready to strike when he can achieve maximum gain. In a triathlon in southern Taitung County last October, he surged into second place in his category with an explosive burst in the final leg -- a 10-kilometer run -- after uninspired performances in the swimming and cycling segments. In politics, of course, second place is nowhere. But the 54-year-old Ma has bided his time in that sphere as well, rising through the ranks of the Kuomintang (KMT). Then, on Feb. 14, he struck, announcing he would seek the party chairmanship -- after months of denying he was interested. "I do things at the right moment," says the former Wall Street lawyer and Harvard Law School graduate.
If Ma can tack the party chairmanship onto his résumé, he'll be a strong contender to carry the KMT banner in the presidential election of 2008. Before being elected mayor in 1998, he served as a minister in two KMT governments and was a key architect of the party's China policy. The question is whether he has the fortitude to win this race. Ma has long eschewed the backroom deals that political machines are built on. That may be popular with voters, but it won't get him the crucial party support he needs. So far, he hasn't said he's running for president. If he does, he'll face a strong challenge within the KMT from Wang Jin-pying, 64, a fellow vice-chairman.
If elected, Chairman Ma's first order of business will be to reform the party. Many younger Taiwanese -- turned off by President Chen Shui-bian's antagonistic stance toward the mainland -- might vote for Ma if he can convince them that the KMT has shed its authoritarian ways. While the KMT is no longer the corrupt machine it once was, it's still run by old-guard politicos who have little intention of giving up the perks of leadership. Ma "has to make the party more democratic," says Philip Yang, a professor of political science at National Taiwan University.
"I NEVER HESITATE"
He'll also have to shore up his record in running Taipei. Ma has won widespread praise for initiatives such as improving garbage disposal, encouraging recycling, boosting the use of English, and launching a wireless broadband network. But he has been criticized for safety problems in the city's subway, and he came under fire when a 4-year-old girl died because she couldn't get a bed in a hospital after a head injury. Many of Ma's initiatives "are short on creativity," says Liao Da-chi, director of the institute of political science at National Sun Yat-sen University.
Despite such concerns, Ma remains popular. A February poll by the United Daily News found that two-thirds of respondents are satisfied with his performance as mayor, though there was a slight uptick in his negatives. "I would give him an 'A' for general performance," says Lee Hsin, deputy speaker of Taipei City Council. But political rivals say Ma is indecisive, unlike his predecessor as mayor, President Chen. Ma denies the charge. "I'm a doer, but without the confrontation," he says. "I never hesitate in doing anything."
Ma's biggest strength may be his stance toward the mainland. Unlike Chen, he advocates warming up to Beijing and has won praise for proposing di- rect air links to the mainland. If the KMT were in power, he says, "at least there would be peace across the strait. Now there is tension." The presidential race won't begin in earnest for two years. But rivals would do well to keep a close eye on Ma Ying-jeou, and watch for him to pick up the pace when the time is right.
By Matt Kovac in Taipei