Ultimate high-stakes battle for Taiwan's
destiny By Laurence
TAIPEI - In these last few days of Taiwan's
presidential election campaign, tension is at an
all-time high. Both sides see the vote on Saturday as
the making or breaking of their visions of Taiwan and
quite possibly their political futures. It is difficult
to overestimate this election and "defensive" referendum
as the ultimate high-stakes battle for Taiwan's destiny,
its sovereign identity, ties with the mainland and its
future in the international arena.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) believes that if it
loses the presidency, the process of reform will be
delayed almost indefinitely and the concept of Taiwan's
sovereign status perhaps irredeemably compromised. The
opposition pan-blue alliance - the Kuomintang (KMT),
which ruled Taiwan often brutally for more than 50
years, and its splinter group, the People First Party
(PFP) - on the other hand sees another rejection at the
polls by Taiwan voters as meaning the permanent
marginalizing of its goals, which advocate compromise of
sovereignty to have better - more lucrative - relations
with China, and quite possible the end of their parties
in their current forms.
DPP President Chen
Shui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu are facing the
KMT's presidential nominee Lien Chan and
vice-presidential nominee James Soong of the PFP. In a
referendum, personally promoted by Chen, voters will
also be asked whether China should be requested to
redirect nearly 500 missiles targeted at Taiwan and, if
Beijing refuses, whether Taiwan should seek advanced
military defense capabilities. It also asks whether
voters favor a resumption of talks to improve
So how are the two sides
doing? Nobody knows, for the simple reason that the law
forbids the release of polling data in Taiwan - or even
referring in the media to the results of previous polls
- 10 days before the election.
candidates kiss Taiwan's earth The poll blackout
went into effect in the middle of last week, which means
that it has been very difficult to assess the impact of
the pan-blues' massive pep rallies around the island
last Saturday. The pan-blues claim that some 3 million
attended the rallies, though what police estimates are
available suggest only half that number were present.
Those events were highlighted by Lien Chan and James
Soong - who have been dogged by accusations that they
mean to "sell out " Taiwan to China - prostrating
themselves and kissing the earth to show their love for
Anecdotal evidence suggests that
opposition supporters at the rallies were deeply moved.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that non-supporters
were generally disgusted by what they were quick to
label a hypocritical gimmick. And unfortunately, given
the blackout on polling data, anecdotal evidence is all
Assessing the mood is also problematic
because it is almost impossible to meet undecided
voters. Most people's minds are made up and have been
made up for some time. So what the elusive "undecided"
voter makes of the competing claims for their ballot is
simply not known.
All that can be said is that
at the end of the legal polling period - the middle of
last week - the DPP had pulled ahead by about 3
percentage points. But this was in the wake of their
extremely successful human-chain event on February 28,
when they organized a human chain from the northernmost
point of Taiwan to its southern tip. The event was
designed, in theory, to show Taiwanese rejection of
China's missile threat.
Human chain turned
into massive DPP rally But the human chain turned
into a massive rally for the DPP. The turnout was
estimated at around 2 million, but even more formidable
were the logistics involved - and many had thought the
often-ramshackle DPP was incapable of such a
What impact the March 13 pan-blue
rallies had on the DPP's gains is difficult to assess.
But for a couple of months now, the race has been neck
and neck, within the margin of error of most polls.
Illegal bookmakers are still favoring a pan-blue victory
by the narrowest of margins.
It has been a
curiously empty campaign with very little discussion of
major policies. The DPP's President Chen has wrapped
himself in the colors of Taiwanese nationalism, posing
as the defier of Chinese coercion and the hope of
democratic and societal reform in Taiwan - to good
effect - significantly widening his core constituency.
The pan-blues have had difficulty meeting this
challenge. Originally they hoped to focus on economic
problems, but with the economy fast picking up, the wind
has been taken out of their sails. They have been left
to tout their reputation for bringing prosperity, and a
raft of small policies which appeal to single-interest
groups - promising special preferential savings rates of
18 percent for state workers and public servants and
promising abolition of the widely hated compulsory
military service to win the young male vote, and of
course establishment of direct transport links with
China to win the business vote.
DPP also wants to open direct links, but the pan-blues
can trade on their reputation for being China's
preferred candidates - playing down talk of Taiwan's
separate identity - to suggest that they are more likely
to bring this about than the governing party.
DPP projects vague nationalism, honesty
The overall impression of the campaign,
therefore, is that the DPP is trying to appeal to the
population's gut feeling. The appeal is not specific
policies but a vague nationalism and the impression of
being honest, clean-living, conscientious social
democrats. "Vote for us because we are decent" is
perhaps the core idea of the DPP campaign, contrasted
repeatedly with the pan-blues' ugly history of
repression and their latter-day reputation for
corruption and cronyism.
The pan-blues on the
other hand have a strategy that relies strongly on the
votes of ethnic minorities (30 percent of the
electorate), and then cherry-picking special-interest
groups with surgically particular policies. Condemned as
cynical and lacking in vision, the pan-blues retort that
such a strategy is exactly what electoral politics in
democracies is all about - identifying what potential
supporters want and finding ways to give it to them.
The problem with both these approaches is that
neither of them gives a very clear picture of what to
expect from one victorious side or the other. The DPP
has grandiose plans for a new constitution, which might
or might not be necessary, but the party hasn't a clue
what to do about the pressing issue of Taiwan's chronic
budget deficit. The pan-blues offer some kind of
rapprochement with China but don't say how this might
occur, except by making concessions to Beijing that half
the population of Taiwan - the DPP supporters - will
fight tooth and nail.
The irony is that both
sides have been saying that they should be elected to
bring to an end four years of interminable bickering,
gridlock and chaos that has put a lot of people off
politics altogether. But whoever is elected, the chaos
is quite likely to get worse.
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