The Jan. 14 presidential election is about two weeks away, but neither of the two main candidates yet holds a clear advantage.
China, meanwhile, says it will not interfere, but has made little attempt to hide its desire to see President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) re-elected. That should mean a continuation of policies that Beijing hopes one day will lead to its long-held aim of unification. It deeply distrusts Ma’s main rival, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), seeing her as seeking independence from Beijing, despite the party’s shift away from that stance.
“Promoting cross-strait peace and development and completing the great task of unification of the motherland are the common aspirations of all the sons and daughters of China, including Taiwan compatriots,” Chinese Politburo Standing Committee member He Guoqiang (賀國強) said this week.
On Wednesday, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office warned that the DPP threatened the two sides’ hard-won peaceful coexistence and that a victory for them would almost certainly stop further talks on trade and economic deals.
The campaigns have moved into high gear, with the candidates traveling the nation to make their pitches. Canvassers hand out leaflets at public places and TV channels convene panels of experts for discussion programs. Taiwan’s partisan and idiosyncratic opinion polls give a slight edge to Ma, a former Taipei mayor who has struggled of late with an image of being aloof and out of touch.
However, that may be blunted by the third candidate, James Soong (宋楚瑜) of the People First Party, which has close ties with the KMT and could cut into its votes.
In the latest poll by TVBS, which leans toward the pan-blue camp, Ma’s support stood at 44 percent. Tsai, a former academic who has revitalized her party, had 38 percent, while Soong stood on 6 percent, with 12 percent undecided.
A separate poll by DPP-leaning research body Taiwan Think Tank, released on Monday, put support for Ma at 39.5 percent and Tsai at 39.1 percent, with Soong at 11.1 percent. The rest were undecided or did not reply.
“Both Tsai and Ma are taking a centrist, moderate road,” said Liao Da-chi (廖達琪), professor at National Sun Yat-sen University. “This is a good thing for Taiwan’s democracy. The two of them are quite similar and this shows the current style of Taiwan.”
And because of this, Taiwan’s fifth presidential election since its transition from a martial law dictatorship is also shedding much of its earlier emotional nature in favor of rational debate.
“Elections in recent years have shed some of the passion that was seen in the early years of democratization in the 1990s and 2000s,” said Wang Yeh-lih, (王業立), head of the political science department at National Taiwan University.
“This is a sign of the gradual maturing of [Taiwan’s] democracy. Passionate emotional confrontations are easing: the two main candidates are both moderate politicians, not populist instigators,” he added.
While the parties have found plenty of mud to sling, the often fiery populist rhetoric of previous campaigns has been overtaken by informed debate and policy on relations with China and domestic issues, such as employment and living costs.
“Tsai and Ma are similar in some characteristics of their personalities: rational, middle of the road,” said Chen Yi-shen (陳儀深), associate research fellow at think tank Academia Sinica. “So how they can attract the majority of floating voters is the key point that will decide victory or defeat.”