On Jan. 11, Taiwan will hold its quadrennial national elections. Voters will pick a president, vice president and a new legislature. Much is at stake.
The current state of affairs in Taiwan affords a vantage point to do some assessments and make predictions.
The critical questions at this juncture are: Who is ahead? Why? Will this situation remain?
In answer to the first question, the polls indicate that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are ahead. So does an examination of the problems facing the DPP and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and their respective candidates.
Tsai is leading in most opinion surveys by double digits and her lead appears to be growing or at least remaining steady.
Also, looking at Tsai’s liabilities or headwinds compared with the KMT’s candidate, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), she has an advantage.
Why is this the case? Tsai’s party and her voting base are fairly well united to support her. Han’s is not.
Tsai faces some scandals; but this is almost always true of someone running for high office in Taiwan.
Some members of the Tsai administration were in September indicted for bringing undeclared cartons of duty-free cigarettes into Taiwan. However, this did not entangle Tsai directly. Anyway, it is now old news.
Tsai was seen as having rigged the primary election to defeat former premier William Lai (賴清德). This hurt her image. However, now it is for the most part forgotten.
Accusations followed about her doctoral dissertation having been copied, but most have written this off as part of a smear effort by her opponents.
Some advocates of Taiwanese independence, in and out of the DPP, have felt that Tsai does not sufficiently support their cause. However, their suspicions have not grown, as most want to win the election and they feel only Tsai can do that.
Meanwhile, Tsai’s fervent pitch to protect Taiwan’s democracy and its sovereignty against China’s threats has resonance with voters. She has played the local nationalism card well.
She is also the candidate with experience — incumbency — at a time when Taiwan’s residents feel insecure.
The KMT is not unified. Hon Hai Precision Industry founder Terry Gou (郭台銘), Taiwan’s eminently successful business tycoon and its richest individual, left the party after its primary, which he felt was unfair, and promised to run for president as an independent.
Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), former legislative speaker and Taiwan’s consummate politician, and Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), Taiwan’s most popular leaders according to many polls, joined him. They looked to take voters from Han.
However, their “alliance” has not materialized and none of the three is a candidate. Reconciliation remains to be seen. It will succor Han if it happens. For now it is the party’s biggest headache.
Han is under a cloud with many of his supporters for having pledged to remain mayor of Kaohsiung when the voters elected him last year.
He broke his promise by accepting the KMT’s nomination to be its candidate for president.
Finally, Han has a significant negative image with many voters.
Returning to the third question: Will the current situation remain? There are conflicting arguments.
Also, there are two factors to consider: The US and China.
Tsai is blessed with good relations with the US. Washington arguably favors Tsai, especially the US Department of State and the US Congress. Han recently canceled a trip to the US, probably knowing that he would likely accomplish little that would help him in January.
US officials have said Washington would not try to influence the election.
However, that is hardly true. It has done so in the past. Anyway, most voters in Taiwan think they know which candidate the US favors and that influences their vote.
Taiwan’s relations with China have become increasingly strained.
China has threatened to hurt Taiwan economically, wrecking its diplomatic standing in the world and spreading terror through its formidable military power.
Thus it remains uncertain how much effect China will have over Taiwan’s voters. In other words, will Tsai’s narrative that China is an evil bully and Taiwan must protect its sovereignty prevail? Probably. Yet the situation is different now.
China’s military is much stronger and is itching to answer Tsai’s provocations with force. Yet Beijing has other more pressing problems to deal with.
Also, likely China’s civilian leaders object to Tsai and the DPP less than they say. They also realize that Taiwanese voters by a big margin prefer the “status quo” to independence.
Thus Beijing has been pulling its punches. It could do much worse.
Taiwan’s trade with China has not declined.
Han’s pitch is that Taiwan’s economic health depends on good relations with China. This is obviously true.
However, Taiwan’s economy, at least GDP growth, has improved recently.
Anyway, it is Tsai’s account that economic equality is more important than just growth and this view has timbre.
Whether Gou, Wang and Ko will decide to support the KMT and/or oppose Tsai and the DPP remains to be seen.
If they do not support Han the KMT would be a party lacking unity. A split party means losing the election, as the 2000 election and some other elections have shown.
Will voters decide that they should stick with Tsai and the DPP or do they perceive that a “change of horses” is a good idea?
Polls show considerable voter disgust with both parties and with politics generally in Taiwan. However, does that mean they will be attracted to the KMT? Probably not.
Finally, will Han recreate the popular “wave” that gave him victory last year? Perhaps. At the time, he started from behind.
Yet this is a different election. Populism, history shows, can propel a candidate or a party to win an election, or it can have the opposite effect. On the other hand, three months is a long time in an election campaign.
What does seem to be quite certain is that the other seven candidates in the presidential race will not affect the result. Former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), who staunchly supports independence and whose campaign was seen to be detrimental to Tsai’s, on Nov. 2 dropped out of the race.
However, a number of candidates from third parties and independents running for the legislature might well mean that neither the DPP nor the KMT will win a majority there and that a divided government would vex Taiwan’s politics next year.
That would be a problem for the next president, whether it is the incumbent or not.
John Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman professor emeritus of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.
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