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Ultimate high-stakes battle for Taiwan's destiny
By Laurence Eyton

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.

The governing 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 Taiwan-China relations.

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.

Opposition 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 the country.

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 there is.

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 mobilization.

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.

Actually, the 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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Mar 17, 2004

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Taiwan's pan-blues sing the blues
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