Conventional theory in electoral politics often highlights the importance of “attack and offense” in campaign plans. Therefore, the extent to which one can successfully set the agenda and frame the debate for campaigning would determine one’s chances of ultimate victory.
However, when it comes to the Jan. 14 presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan, how to avoid making mistakes and thereby giving opponents a chance to succeed constitutes an essential element of winning the poll.
In the presidential race, for example, who would have thought that Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) relative lead over his main challenger, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperon Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), would be overturned in a month — according to various public polls?
One month ago, Tsai’s campaign was overshadowed by the KMT’s “smear war” against her running mate Su Jia-chyuan’s (蘇嘉全) alleged illegal ownership of a farmhouse. At this time, Ma’s lead over Tsai once widened to 10 percent.
A month later, the most recent polls — including those of the KMT-favoring China Times and TVBS — have shown a tie between Ma and Tsai. Other polls released by the Future Exchange Institution and the American Institute in Taiwan showed Tsai is leading Ma by 2 percent to 3 percent. Tsai and her DPP also garnered more support in areas traditionally considered KMT strongholds, such as central Taiwan and Hakka constituencies. Underground gambling circles have also cut their bets for Ma’s lead over Tsai from 600,000 votes to 200,000 votes.
Three major factors have led to the change in electoral support for Ma and Tsai. The first involves the participation of another presidential candidate, People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜).
Soong collected more than 450,000 signatures to pass the minimum threshold for qualifying as a candidate and pledged to join the presidential race no matter how low his chance of victory is. Most polls show that Soong has 10 percent to 15 percent of electoral support, which translates into at least 700,000 to 800,000 votes. Given the razor-thin gap between Ma and Tsai, the fact that Soong would attract more votes from the KMT than the DPP increases Tsai’s chances of winning the presidency.
The second factor concerns a series of mistakes made by Ma and his Cabinet. Ma’s flip-flops on his proposal to forge a peace accord with China were he elected, as well as his about-face on whether to incorporate a referendum to decide whether to sign such a peace accord, displayed the inconsistency and shortsightedness of his decisionmaking. Both Beijing and Washington were surprised by Ma’s electoral maneuvering on the issue of a peace accord.
The Cabinet, led by Ma’s running mate, Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), further rocked the boat of Ma’s campaign. On the issue of farmers’ subsidies, Tsai’s camp has forced the Ma administration to favor the DPP’s proposal to add NT$1,000 to each elderly farmers’ monthly stipend. The Cabinet’s original plan was to increase the subsidy by only NT$316, but this backfired against the KMT in its agricultural constituencies in central and southern Taiwan.
Moreover, former Council for Cultural Affairs minister Emile Sheng (盛治仁) resigned last week after allegedly favoring certain performance companies and individuals in the bidding process for the staging of a rock musical to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China. Many famous artists and performance organizations have accused Sheng and the Ma administration of spending more than NT215 million (US$7.15 million) on the two-day event and favoring a specific project directed by Stan Lai (賴聲川). Sheng’s resignation demonstrated damage control by Ma’s camp.
The scandal relating to the the director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Kansas City, Jacqueline Liu (劉珊珊), who ran afoul of US labor laws, has also exposed the government’s poor management of its diplomats. Despite the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ negotiations with its US counterpart on the issue of diplomatic immunity, Liu’s admitting to violations of human rights involving two servants has no doubt damaged Taiwan’s international image.
Recent media disclosures alleging that Ma meet with a head of one of Taiwan’s biggest underground gambling circles could be the last straw for his re-election bid.
Having long portrayed himself as a “political Teflon” man and anti-corruption believer, Ma admitted that he met with bookies prior to the 2008 presidential election and the 2009 local elections. Despite Ma denying recently meeting with and accepting political contributions from bookie Chen Ying-chu (陳盈助), the fact that Ma, who has been criticizing former DPP president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and his family for inappropriately taking contributions from tycoons and therefore corruption, jeopardized his own image as a “clean” politician by meeting with gambling bosses.
While the electorate’s passion for Tsai has been energized by the “three piggy banks” movement, Ma’s campaign has been deeply troubled by his administration’s incompetence and self-destructive behavoir. Ma’s re-election is in jeopardy.
Liu Shih-chung is a senior research fellow at the Taipei-based Taiwan Brain Trust.
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