By Paul R. Katz
As Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections approach (just a little more than two months from now, on January 14, 2012), the former is shaping up to be a real puzzler. In theory, President Ma Ying-jeou should be having a cake walk: relations with China are better than ever and the economy is running at a reasonable clip, especially when compared with so many other nations throughout the world. Yet at this point in time most polls show him either holding only a slim lead or else mired in a statistical dead heat with DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen. Why?
Ma’s term started better than most. A man of charisma and integrity, he won the 2008 election by a landslide after popular disgust with the corrupt antics of the Chen Shuibian administration, garnering 7,658,724 votes (58% of the total) to overwhelm the Frank Hsieh ticket (5,445,239; 41%). Moreover, he swept into office with something Obama can only dream of: a nearly three-quarters supermajority for his party (the KMT) in the Legislative Yuan (81 of 113 seats or 71.68%, as opposed to a paltry 27 seats for the DPP). This majority remains substantial, despite the fact that the DPP and independents have whittled away at it over the years. There are also the advantages of incumbency, the KMT’s substantial assets, and strong support from a substantial percentage of the Taiwanese elite. The Ma administration has even been able to persuade the Central Election Commission to hold this particular election two months earlier than usual, just prior to the Lunar New Year, to allow Taiwanese businessmen in China the chance to return home to vote (Many are reckoned to be KMT supporters, and Taiwan has yet to institute a viable absentee ballot system). Yet the election remains closer than many had originally anticipated.
It is true that Ma proved unable to fulfill all of his campaign promises, but this is usually the case with elected leaders. Still, as in the U.S., most Taiwanese voters seem most concerned about the economy. Since Ma assumed office in 2008, closer links to China have given a major impetus to Taiwan’s economic growth. Nonetheless, critics point to the failure the Ma administration to reach the goals of his “633” policy, namely an economic growth rate of 6 percent, unemployment rate of lower than 3 percent and per capita gross domestic product of over US$30,000. Many college graduates now start at jobs with salaries averaging just over NT$20,000 per month, while far too many working class families struggle to make ends meet on monthly salaries of NT$30,000 (no indigenous form of Occupy Wall Street has arisen, yet). There is also growing concern about companies making their workers take unpaid leave (無薪假).
Apart from income gaps, there are regional ones as well. One especially troubling report released by the Ministry of the Interior noted that the average life expectancy of the Taiwanese people reached 79.18 years in 2010, the highest ever recorded. However, people in the capital city of Taipei have much longer lifespans than those in the poorer parts of Taiwan, especially along the island’s east coast. People living in Taitung and Hualien had the shortest life expectancies in the country in 2010 at 74.24 years and 74.96 years respectively, while the average life expectancy of Taipei residents stood at 82.42 years. This 7-8 year gap reflects the vastly uneven distribution of medical and public health resources throughout Taiwan.
Rising prices have sparked increasing anxiety and frustration. Many commodity prices are skyrocketing, except for those of Taiwan’s agricultural products (like bananas), that people had once assumed would be exported to China. The plight of Taiwan’s elderly farmers has attracted particular attention, particularly after the DPP produced a highly effective TV commercial about this issue that concluded with the news that the KMT had recently blocked an attempt to raise these farmers’ pensions (老農津貼). The KMT is well aware of the potential impact of this issue on the election campaign, but its legislators have yet to reach a consensus as to how much to raise pensions. Matters were made worse by a fraudulent commercial (since pulled) that appeared to show farmer Huang Kunbin 黃崑濱 (affectionately known as “Uncle Kunbin” or Khun-pin peh 崑濱伯 in Southern Min), a star of the touching documentary about Taiwan’s farmers entitled “Let it Be” (無米樂), adopting the KMT’s positions. To many farmers and residents of the peripheral areas mentioned above, the Ma administration seems aloof and indifferent, particularly following the devastation caused by Typhoon Morakot (For previous writings on recovery from the typhoon, see here).
It does not help Ma’s cause that the KMT is suffering its share of internal divisions (this is also the case with the DPP, but its elites seem willing to paper over their differences in order to regain power). Ma’s attempts to reform the party have offended many of its elders, some of whom appear to be only reluctantly supporting him. Concerns have also been raised about the so-called “金馬體制”, a reference not to Quemoy and Matsu but Ma’s close ties to his leading adviser King Pu-tsung 金溥聰, who some have branded a modern-day Heshen 和珅 (1750-1799) due to his seeming ability to know Ma’s policies before some ministers (ironically, King is an ethnic Manchu, reputed to be a cousin of the last Qing emperor Puyi 溥儀).
Still, despite all of these problems, Ma has consistently been able to maintain his lead over Tsai, despite a looming challenge from James Soong (see below). Therefore, many commentators were quite puzzled by Ma’s decision to suddenly suggest that Taiwan might consider signing a peace treaty with China in the coming decade. Then, in the face of furious criticism, Ma shifted course by stressing that any peace treaty would have to be approved by referendum before being signed, a stance that appears to contradict staunch KMT opposition to holding any plebiscites on “political issues”. Ma’s announcements may have been an attempt to shift the debate to his strength (Cross-Strait ties) and distract attention away from domestic issues, but the recent decline in Ma’s numbers suggests that this tactic may have backfired.
Ma is now facing additional pressure because Soong has followed through on his plans to pursue a third-party PFP campaign (again), attracting over 350,000 signatures in support of his candidacy. However, it remains unclear whether Soong will end up siphoning more votes from Ma or Tsai.
As for Tsai, nobody can be sure whether she has the “right stuff” to solve Taiwan’s problems, but her campaign is now kicking into high gear and attracting huge crowds at its rallies, including the 30,000+ who attended the opening of her campaign headquarters in New Taipei City. One seemingly minor but actually significant event was a decision by the Control Yuan to investigate the Tsai ticket for allegedly accepting illegal campaign contributions when three small children (triplets, actually) donated their piggybanks to her campaign (see the following video). Tsai’s staff had to return the money, causing the triplets’ grandfather to make an even larger donation in their place, but the resulting outrage and disbelief have prompted her campaign to announce a drive to collect 100,000 piggybanks full of donations (see here and here). Whether this will amount to anything remains to be seen, but many have been struck by the symbolism of the small donations that are largely responsible for fueling the Tsai campaign, which contrast markedly with the size of the well-oiled KMT machine and the support some local corporations as well as Taiwanese businessmen in China are credited with providing to Ma. If these patterns continue, the entire election may come to be cast as a battle of The People vs. The Machine.
At this point in time, either Ma or Tsai can win, although Ma would seem to retain an overall edge. For Ma, the keys to victory will be doing what he can to ensure that the economy stays strong, persuading the people to recognize and appreciate his many achievements, and hoping that nothing untoward happens to disrupt Cross-Strait ties. In Tsai’s case, she will need to stay focused on message of social justice, which helped the DPP gain power back in 2000, while avoiding the thorny issue of Taiwanese identity. Both candidates will have to keep a close eye on how Soong’s presidential bid develops.