The first presidential debate on Saturday was conducted rationally, with all three candidates striking a more substantive tone, providing an opportunity for voters to ponder the serious question of which to elect without being overwhelmed by campaign trail nastiness.
Cross-strait relations and the nation’s increasingly grim economic outlook were the dominant issues. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) turned up the heat on the so-called “1992 consensus” and the “Taiwan consensus” and targeted each other over how best to address the country’s fiscal problems.
Ma sounded more like an opposition leader by using his opening remarks to attack the former DPP administration and trying to link Tsai to former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), while he dodged questions about his own administration’s performance with counter-questions and obfuscating statistics.
Ma referred to the nation as “Taiwan” for the first time, but remained evasive about his stance on the national title issue by saying Taiwan was a common term for the nation officially known as the Republic of China (ROC).
Tsai seemed poised and confident. She grilled Ma over what she said was his failure to understand people’s feelings about commodity prices and other economic issues, and successfully forced both Ma and People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) to discuss her proposed “Taiwan consensus.” However, the DPP chairperson should work on her counter-arguments.
Soong, amid fierce the debate between Ma and Tsai, seemed a little like a third wheel. Both Ma and Tsai largely ignored him — Soong himself even joked about the situation, responding to Ma in the cross--examination stage of the debate by saying: “I don’t think this question is meant for me.”
Soong adopted a surprisingly conciliatory tone in the debate. Although he has been critical of Ma and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) ahead of the presidential campaign and since he became a candidate, he praised the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), saying it had helped improve the economy. He also agreed with Tsai’s remarks several times during the debate.
Soong focused on economic issues and outlined a platform that would appeal mostly to the middle class. It remains to be seen whether this moderate approach will prove more effective in splitting the pan-blue vote.
The first presidential debate was on the whole a welcome relief from the negative campaigning we have seen thus far, filled with attack ads and empty promises.
Taiwanese could appreciate the differences in the candidates’ various positions and in their character traits. However, all three candidates remained short on details and the debate lacked sufficient substance, considering the Jan. 14 presidential and legislative elections are only 40 days away.
Further observation will indicate how the debate might affect the election’s outcome, but we expect to hear a more serious discussion of the nation’s problems — of which there are many — in the second presidential debate later this month.