The first presidential debate between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) was held on Saturday. All three candidates expressed themselves admirably, sounding very democratic and eloquent, which was good in that it showed the world how far democracy has come in Taiwan. The problem was that, as the debate unfolded, there was much of interest, but very little substance. None of the three candidates came up with any comprehensive ideas or policies.
Polls taken after the debate showed that Ma held up pretty well, maintaining his lead. However, this was more a reflection of how he had conducted himself in the debate, how good his delivery and debating skills were, rather than public preference for his politics over the other two candidates. For example, Ma was at considerable pains to lump Tsai in with former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), starting by criticizing Chen and his corrupt administration and going on to say that if Tsai were to win, she would forever be under Chen’s shadow. He concluded by saying Tsai was somehow an extension of Chen, playing on the public’s negative impression of the former president. Tsai countered that they were debating next year’s presidential election, that this was not 2008 and that Ma was standing against her, not Chen.
Anyone would think from the way Ma was relentlessly pursuing Tsai that it was Ma who was the leader of the opposition, and Tsai, calmly parrying the attacks, the head of government defending her record. Mounting strong attacks in a debate is a good tactic: It shows that you are strong, it keeps the opponent from attacking you and gets them on the back foot, hopefully responding rashly and making forced errors.
During the debate, Ma cited all sorts of facts and figures to back up his assertion of what his administration has achieved over the past three-and-a-half years and how hard he had been working to put the country’s house in order after the Chen years. The cold, hard facts may have sounded impressive to the president, but they were met with less enthusiasm by his audience. Tsai has managed to engage her supporters on a much more emotive level, with her piggy bank and “female Robin Hood” successes. Ma’s campaign has faltered because it has been overly centered on himself and has struggled to resonate with the public.
Ma is perhaps a little reluctant to make sweeping promises for the next four years, as the opposition and press alike have been reminding him of his failure to make good on those made in the 2008 campaign. Back then, he promised to achieve 6 percent annual economic growth, an average per capita income of US$30,000 and an unemployment rate of below 3 percent — better known as his “6-3-3” policy — by next year. Now, however, he has been famously non-committal.
Blessed recently with a lack of controversies or difficult political challenges, Ma has turned to talking up his idea of a “golden decade.” Instead of directly addressing issues relating to cross-strait political negotiations, joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership or finally implementing a two-day weekend for all workers, which government agencies have adopted more than a decade ago, he is just focused on pushing his “golden decade.” Think about it: If Ma does manage to secure a second term, what is he going to do with another four years? Where will Taiwan be at the end of it?