In January 2012, incumbent Ma Ying-jeou will face challenger Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan’s presidential elections, held concurrently with elections for the Taiwanese legislature. Although the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was badly damaged by corruption charges against its previous leader, former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian, it has rebounded under Tsai’s leadership. Under Ma, however, Taiwan has seen economic and tourist links to the mainland flourish, and many Taiwanese have come to see the benefits of commercial relations with China. Nevertheless, Ma is struggling to deliver on earlier promises to boost economic performance. Can Tsai navigate between the moderates on China and those who take a stronger line on autonomy and independence for Taiwan? Can Ma lift his game and secure a decisive win both for himself and his parliamentary colleagues? What are the post-election implications for the United States and Taiwan’s neighbors of either leader winning the presidential race in January? And what are the domestic issues and electoral dynamics that will dominate the legislative elections? On December 13, the Asia Program hosted an event to consider these questions.
Polling data has been hotly contested in the run-up to January’s election. As Karl Ho, director of academic computing for economic, political, and policy science at the University of Texas, Dallas, noted, individual polling companies tend to have methodological biases, however slight, that favor one candidate or party over another, and this is particularly true in Taiwan. For example, polls run by Taiwan’s United Daily News or by the China Times newspaper tend to favor the “blue camp” centered around Ma’s Nationalist Party (KMT), while polls conducted by the Liberty Times and the Taiwan Brain Trust think tank lean towards the “green camp” centered on the DPP. All polling companies tend to show their respective “favorites” leading the presidential race. However, Ho stated that it is more helpful to look at these polls for an indication of trends, rather than an accurate representation of final results. To that extent the “green camp” polls, as well as some of the “blue camp” polls, show increasing support for the DPP over time. Ho argues, however, that polling the public about their choice of leader is not always effective, because often voters either have not made up their mind on how they will vote, or strategically attempt to deceive pollsters to skew the results. Testing voters on their preferences on election issues is more trustworthy as an indication of how they will vote than testing them on party affiliation. Ho was also careful to point out that traditional KMT voters were far less predictable than DPP voters. With a third candidate, the People First Party’s Soong Chu-yu, potentially attracting votes from KMT supporters, this makes the presidential election highly unpredictable.
However, the elections in January are not only about the presidency. The parties have different interpretations of the contested institutions. Dafydd Fell, deputy director of Taiwan studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, noted that Ma came to power in 2008 criticizing the corruption allegations circling the Chen administration. Although Chen has faded from the scene, voters are beginning to evaluate Ma on his own merits. The KMT, which has traditionally maintained a strong showing in the parliament, is using the popularity of incumbents in individual parliamentary districts to invigorate the image of the president. The KMT is also focusing on identity issues, the usual domain of the DPP, but stressing that Taiwan’s identity is a dual one. That is, Ma acknowledges the political difference between Taiwan and the mainland, but he tries to project the image of Taiwan as quintessentially Chinese. The DPP approach is precisely the opposite. Tsai has downplayed any nationalist thoughts she might have about the independence of Taiwan, and her party is highlighting her as a potential leader to encourage voters to choose DPP candidates in individual districts. Ma is a political performer and knows how to appeal to audiences, but Tsai’s low-key approach is probably attractive to middle-class floating voters.
Although Fell played down foreign policy issues and relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as an issue in the election campaigns, John Fuh-sheng Hsieh, professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, noted that Taiwan is a society divided along the lines of that very issue. He noted that within the DPP, for example, there were those who sought de jure independence for Taiwan, whereas there is still a minority hardcore strand of the KMT which sees the mainland as the Republic of China’s own birthright. Most Taiwanese, however, seem to be satisfied with the status quo: that Taiwan has de facto independence even if the lack of formal recognition by other states is the price it has to pay not to enrage the PRC. As for the broader party membership, the DPP leans unambiguously toward independence, while the KMT generally supports the status quo but only leans somewhat toward reunification. Nevertheless, both parties do see stability as important, and the danger of enraging China, coupled with popular support for the status quo should act as significant restraints on a push toward independence, no matter who is in power.
Does the result of the election have any implications for Taiwan’s relations with the United States? According to Cal Clark, professor of political science at Auburn University, the direct effects of the election will be judged in Washington by whether the Taiwanese president after the election wants to have good relations with the United States. However, Chinese reactions to the post-election leadership constitute an indirect factor that will also be a matter important to America. Most Americans influential in thinking on Taiwan agree that the status quo is the best option for Taipei. However, some in Washington either want to see Taiwan distance itself, perhaps aggressively, from China, or want the United States to distance itself from Taiwan in order to form better relations with the PRC. While those that oppose the status quo variously sit at either end of a debate within America on Taiwan, a win by Tsai might play into their collective hands. That is, destabilization of cross-strait relations could open the way for either an American approach to China or U.S. support for Taiwan against the PRC.
By Bryce Wakefield
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program