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Taiwan is bracing itself for combined presidential and legislatives elections to be held on Jan. 14, with many political observers saying the outcome of the poll will not only shape Taipei’s relations with Beijing but will also leave their mark on how the US and China will face each other.
For the job of chief executive, the Taiwanese will choose between incumbent Ma Ying-jeou of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang, Tsai Ing-wen of the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party, and James Soong of the People’s First Party, who like Ma is pro-eventual unification.
Their respective platforms: Ma highlights his historic achievement of having turned archenemy China into guarantor of the island’s prosperity. Tsai promises social justice. Soong portrays himself standing above political feuding for the common good. Opinion polls consistently show Ma and Tsai in a dead heat.
Reading the tea leaves
The only independent Taiwanese polling institute, the Global Views Survey Research Center, unexpectedly closed in the run-up to the elections. Results of other surveys vary significantly according to the pollsters’ political bias. However, National Chengchi University’s Exchange of Future Events, which doesn’t ask people whom they vote for but instead how much money they would bet on a certain outcome, on Dec. 10 forecast that Tsai can expect 50.3 percent of the vote, Ma 41.6 percent and Soong 10.9 percent. The exchange has a history of relatively high accuracy in previous elections.
The list of factors affecting Ma negatively is topped by the perception that despite Taiwan’s stunning GDP growth of 10.8 percent last year, livelihood pressures haven’t eased enough for the lower and middle classes. While the elite is regarded as feasting through the opening to China and in particular from the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement that Ma signed with Beijing last year, which slashed hundreds of tariffs on Taiwanese exports to China and eased regulations for cross-Strait investment, the unemployment rate stood at 4.3 percent in October. That is significantly higher than those of export rivals Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore, which have rates between 2 percent and 3.3 percent.
Per-capita income refuses to rise over US$20,000, the wealth gap is increasing, and average house prices remain at 9.2 times annual household income, unaffordable to many in a society where owning a house is prerequisite to starting a family. Making matters worse for the KMT was Ma’s recent proposal for a cross-Strait peace accord, presented to a public remembering well the six decades Taiwan has been threatened and bullied by Beijing.
Ma’s main challenger, the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, has recently famously been described as a “Robin Hood-like heroine” by the Associated Press. But many Taiwanese are troubled by the concern that her win would bring about significant deterioration in cross-Strait relations, which in turn simply cannot be good for the Taiwanese economy.
On the island’s TV screens, pundits argue that the main reason the local benchmark index TAIEX has fallen further than other global markets recently is that investors fear Tsai would win.
Apart from campaigning on anti-unification and leftist platforms, Tsai’s vision for a nuclear-free homeland by 2025 is met with skepticism as is her reported objection to the island’s petrochemical industry. And, Taiwan’s women tend not to like her. The unmarried Tsai trails Ma among women by margins of around 5 percent.
Tsai’s wild card, however, could to be James Soong, who is expected to split the vote with Ma. The better he fares, the higher the chances for Tsai. Like Ma, Soong is a KMT princeling and is regarded as running both to settle an old personal score with Ma and to help his PFP secure a foothold in the legislature.
Barring some unforeseen disaster, Soong cannot win the race, but he is certain to tap into the KMT’s voter base, much as happened in 2000 when he ran as an independent, causing a DPP win that brought the ill-starred Chen Shui-bian to office. Many KMT-leaning voters fret over a similar outcome and see Soong as nothing but a grudging spoiler.
Another factor drag down Soong’s candidacy is his 73-year-old running mate, Lin Ruey-shiung, who recently became a laughing stock after having repeatedly claimed that the National Security Bureau (NSB), which is Taiwan’s principal intelligence agency, attacked him at home with 18.75 MHz or 1875 MHz frequency electromagnetic waves in order to “drive him crazy.”
As it is obvious that Beijing wants Ma to stay in office, the run-up to the election has been rife with conspiracy theories. The DPP alleged that Taiwan’s Ministry of Transportation and Communications recently brokered a deal between Taiwanese business associations and five major air carriers to give 50 percent discounts on cross-Strait flights in a bid to convince more than 1 million China-based Taiwanese businesspeople to return to Taiwan to cast their votes.
It is said that 70 percent of these expatriates support the KMT and that the business associations as well as the airlines in question were pressured by China.
The Chinese side is hugely suspicious of Tsai Ing-wen due to her role as one of the crafters of the mid 1990s “special state-to-state doctrine” that brought the two sides to the brink of war. Beijing has repeatedly given broad hints to the Taiwanese electorate that a Tsai win could eventually bring about the end of cross-Strait economic negotiations and the purchase of Taiwanese agricultural products as well as leading to reduced visits by Chinese tourists and officials as well as mainland students studying on the island.
According to reports by Hong Kong media, the reason that there was a sudden spike in arrivals to Taiwan by Chinese tourists in November is that on the mainland side it is generally believed that a Tsai win in January could cause a sudden halt to cross-Strait travel.
Washington has also allegedly already begun meddling to ensure that Ma stays in power, keeping cross-Strait relations and in turn Sino-US ones on a predictable and amicable trajectory. As indications, among others, observers cite the visit to Taipei on December 11 by US Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan in a decade. His trip is allegedly meant to counter rampant rumors that the US is about to “abandon” Taiwan that likely have affected Ma’s domestic standing negatively.
Rather obviously lending a hand to Ma, who unlike Tsai doesn’t vow to get rid of the island’s nuclear industry any time soon, Poneman used his pre-election stay to let the Taiwanese know that the US supports Taiwan’s participation in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and emphasized that nuclear power in the US’ view still is an indispensable part of its energy portfolio.
News that Taiwan will soon become a candidate country to be given visa waiver privileges by the US is also seen in the context of a Washington rescue for Ma for the sake of smooth Sino-US relations.
Post-election politics – all can join in
The Taiwanese will also elect 113 legislators. As historically the DPP has never held legislative majority, there are concerns that a Tsai win would lead to a situation much like the one between 2000 and 2008 when virtually move by then-president Chen was boycotted by a hostile legislature. In an interview with Asia Sentinel, Chen In-chin, a professor at Taiwan’s National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government, laid out scenarios and argued that a President Tsai could fare slightly better than Chen Shui-bian.
“It is almost certain that the KMT will obtain a legislative majority; the PFP will pass the five-percent hurdle, enabling Soong to establish a faction,” Chen said, adding that Tsai, if elected president, could possibly enjoy the PFP’s support to get certain legislation passed.
“If Ma stays in office by a narrow win – and he cannot expect to win by a big margin, he will be severely weakened,” Chen said. “Other KMT heavyweights will then fight for positions of power at Ma’s expense and possibly even with the help of informal negotiations with the DPP.”
As KMT figures who might start elbowing themselves toward the top, he singled out Premier Wu Den-yih, New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin, Parliamentary Speaker Wang Jin-ping, and honorary chairmen Lien Chan and Wu Poh-hsiung.
Even If elected narrowly, Tsai wouldn’t have such difficulties any time soon, Chen believes.
“Here she has an advantage because even a narrow win would be seen as a huge success; it would take some time until rivals within the DPP would dare working toward undermining her position.”
Chen argued, however that whoever wins narrowly, it’s not over till the fat lady sings for Beijing.
“Of course, the Chinese initially will be hugely disappointed because they have supported Ma wholeheartedly. But actually, it’s not totally running against Chinese interests. The certain decentralization of power a narrow Tsai or Ma win would bring about would firstly severely limit the government’s capacity to act in terms of foreign policy, and secondly make attempts to influence politicians much more promising for China.”
When asked how exactly China could expand its clout by targeting individual figures in a political landscape in which power is in the hands of many more players than now, Chen replied rather cryptically.
“There are many thinkable ways how China would make our politicians do its bidding while it waits for the next presidential elections,” he said.