International Affairs Forum:
Taiwan's presidential election takes place on March 22. The favorite seems to be Ma Ying-jeou, representing the Kuomintang (KMT), who is running against the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party candidate Frank Hsieh. What are the key differences between them?
The major differences between Ma and Hsieh are their China and economic policies, and these two issues are always tightly bound in election campaign. So far there are no direct flights between Taiwan and China, which is quite troublesome, especially to over a million Taiwanese people working, living and studying in China. Currently, people have to transfer at Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea or other places from Taiwan to China, which is quite time-consuming. The incumbent president Chen Shui-bian (DPP) has been talking about establishing regular direct flights and opening up for the past eight years, but the results are not satisfying to many people, to say the least. Both candidates have promised to negotiate this issue with China if elected. While Ma has offered a timetable, Hsieh has not.
Hsieh has been severely criticizing Ma’s China policy for endangering Taiwan’s economy. He claims that if Ma gets elected, Taiwan will be overwhelmed by workers, women and products from China, and then local people will be out of work and out of husbands. This indeed reflects and raises fears and anxieties of some voters. Ma emphasizes, on the other hand, he will only open up to Chinese tourists to rejuvenate local economy, no produce and workers will be opened up. Generally speaking, DPP and Hsieh are more hostile to China, portraying it more like a potential threat, and Ma takes it more like a potential opportunity.
China is a major market to businesses around the world. With language advantages, democratic foundation, and geographical proximity, Taiwan should have been the regional hub for Western companies eyeing China. In the past several years, however, because of political turmoil and policy choices, the Taiwanese government has intentionally cut off links with China. This has led to negative impacts towards local economy, as many businesses, local or international, manufacturing or services, decide to relocate in other countries. Over-regulation only creates a group of rent-seeking businesses, as they set up companies in other places to get around investment upper limits. In this regards, both candidates promise to deregulate, hoping to bring back more capital, investment and job opportunities. Government regulations are never really effective to the rich, so candidates should pay more attention to people with less mobility when talking about economic and welfare measures.
Many Taiwanese students are studying in China, which is an open secret, even though the government in Taiwan does not recognize any certificates or diplomas from China. Ma has clearly stated these graduates will be accepted if elected, while Hsieh would refuse. Hsieh is concerned about national security and policymaking with public servants who have an educational background in China. This issue will definitely influence some swing votes, as more and more voters have friends or family members staying in China.
According to most opinion polls until now, Ma seems to have a clear lead. It has to be pointed out that in the 2004 presidential election, President Chen was never a frontrunner in polls, but he won in the end by a wafer-thin margin. Public opinion may also change with events any time before the election.
The KMT trounced the DPP in legislative elections earlier this year. Why is the DPP apparently so unpopular?
KMT had long been the ruling party, authoritarian or democratic, without interruption until 2000, when DPP won the presidential election. DPP is usually trusted because they always emphasize no corruption, in contrast to the scandal-ridden KMT. For the past eight years, however, many corruption cases have been revealed within the DPP government, with many officials being prosecuted, indicted and thrown into jail. Even the First Lady and President Chen’s son-in-law are being prosecuted over related cases. This has created a backlash against the DPP. As a result, many disillusioned voters switched allegiance or simply stayed at home in the legislative election on January 12th. It is also noteworthy that a new single-member and two-vote system has been adopted in the election, which is also influential and definitely will affect the results.
Do you think the legislative elections are a good indicator of what will happen in the presidential race?
The legislative election has reflected the public discontent towards the DPP government. In order to avoid the same situation from occurring in the presidential election, candidate Frank Hsieh has campaigned hard and called for a DPP president to balance a KMT-dominant parliament. KMT has denounced and ridiculed this idea, as in parliamentary democracies such as Britain and Japan, this is the norm when administrative and legislative powers belong to the same party. DPP also hope the defeat in the legislative election will mobilize supporters in the presidential one. Voters in China are another factor that has to be considered. The differences on China policy between the two candidates may prompt more voters to fly back and vote, as absentee voting is not possible in Taiwan. Since it was a close call in the previous presidential election, neither candidates is assured victory even though Ma is leading in most opinion polls.
In the legislative election, many voters cast their ballots for KMT not really because of support for this party, but to show their discontent towards the DPP government. Some of this sentiment will continue on in the presidential campaign. Many KMT legislators and local governors are also surrounded by numerous corruption and fraudulent cases. This election is again a choice of the lesser evil from some voters’ perspectives.
There were plans for a Youtube debate between the candidates. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
The first televised presidential debate was held on February 24th. Inspired by the YouTube example in American presidential primaries, the host welcomes voters in Taiwan to submit their own 30-second videos to local citizen journalism website Peopo prior to the debate. Later, 20 clips are selected, within which issues such as Kyoto Protocol, minority rights, agriculture, foreign policy, education, birth rates, and inflation rates are covered. These 20 voters are also present at the debate to raise follow-up questions after both candidates answer their clips. After the debate, some people criticized it saying that 90 seconds each per question is way too short for candidates to elaborate on their sophisticated concepts and policies. It is the first time, after all, to adopt this new form of debate. Improvements are needed, but it’s a good way to get voters somewhat more involved in politics.
Just setting the election aside for a moment, I think a lot of people interested in Taiwan wonder what the average Taiwanese thinks about independence. What would you say the public mood is like on this issue?
Undoubtedly, Taiwan is not ruled by China. Neither instant unification nor independence is a preferable option for most people, according to opinion polls. Because this issue has been manipulated by politicians for political purposes for so long, most voters are indifferent to this topic at the moment, to say the least. It should be temporarily shelved, and other things should be set as priorities, such as social justice, social equality and economy. Since we have a referendum system in Taiwan, our collective future should be decided by collective will. Politicians are no longer able or allowed to unilaterally declare independence or unification without a mandate. If China tries to influence people in Taiwan by threats or military exercises, which have been proven ineffective, it would only create resentment among the public. So far, there is still far from a consensus on this issue in Taiwan.
Leonard Chien is a Taiwanese blogger and writer for Global Voices. The views expressed are his own.
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