Visitors to Taipei and consumers of its largely Taipei-centric media gain only a very limited perspective of Taiwan. The differences between highly urban and international Taipei and the rest of the island can be very substantial. Thus, in seeking to understand Taiwan's presidential election, it is essential escape the Taipei "hothouse" and absorb some of the "down island" atmosphere.
Recently, this writer spent a few days in Chiayi County (嘉義縣), where almost 30 years ago he lived with a poor farm family for a year-and-a-half and where he has since periodically returned.
Chiayi is considered part of Taiwan's "south," an area which all campaign "camps" say is an area of key support for Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and the area where James Soong (宋楚瑜) has the least strength. On the other hand, Chiayi is not part of the "deep south" and it is the native place of the KMT vice-presidential candidate, Vincent Siew (蕭萬長).
In visiting all three local camps and in talking to many farmers, small business people and local politicians, the writer was most surprised by the apparent strength of James Soong. Soong appears to have developed considerable support "down island" while provincial governor. He frequently visited all areas of the island and spent substantial provincial government monies on public works.
According to one village politician, Soong visited every one of Taiwan's 309 township-level units three, four or five times. A leaflet distributed by the Soong camp notes that Soong visited Chiayi County 158 times as governor and that during 1994-1999 the provincial government spent NT$81,735,110,000 there. The leaflet says Soong visited each Chiayi township and municipality from 4 to 24 times and details the main construction achieved in each.
The basic "accepted truth" in Taipei is that Soong's voters do not hide their support and that Soong will not be able to increase his proportion of the vote much beyond the 25 percent shown in the last public polls. However, in the countryside -- unlike in Taipei -- it is the Soong voters who are "hidden."
While even Soong supporters acknowledge that Chen leads the voting in Chiayi, it is possible that an unexpectedly large "hidden" vote in the south could given Soong a larger proportion of the votes than forecast by Taipei pundits.
Chiayi has a total of some 410,000 voters. Commentators from all three local camps say Chen will gain 90,000 and possibly even 100,000 votes. Most also feel that Soong may gain some 70,000 votes. The KMT vote will depend on several factors including voter turnout.
Chiayi, like many rural areas has become "old," and older voters have lower turnout rates. The young (who tend to support Chen) have often moved away to work. How many will be able to return home to vote remains moot.
In addition, the factional support for the KMT nominees remains unclear. Many suggest that the powerful Huang and Lin factions are lukewarm to the Lien-Siew ticket and some faction leaders may even provide quiet support to Soong. Only the Siew Family Squad (蕭家班) , which has become Chiayi's third and smallest faction, fully supports the KMT nominees. But even this support has mixed value.
While no one suggests that Vincient Siew is corrupt, his three distant Siew relatives -- who made possible his initial run for the Legislative Yuan in 1995 -- have a strong reputation as black elements who have become extremely rich and now typify the "black and gold" behavior of the KMT.
In fact, one of the three main Siew leaders, former County Assembly Speaker Siew Teng-piao
People question how efficient any KMT vote-buying will prove. Thirty years ago, if voters took money, they felt an obligation to vote for that candidate. While some older voters still have such ethics, others now feel that they should vote against anyone who offers money.
A number of people noted that vote-buying in a presidential election would give Taiwan a bad name internationally. Yet, some local politicians and others with links to the central government will not want to lose the "face" which would occur should the KMT ticket receive too few votes in their areas. Thus, there will be pressures to buy votes.
Currently, in Chiayi most say the KMT will pay NT$500-1000 per vote. One local DPP politician, noting the wide range in turnouts in recent elections, suggested as many as 60,000 votes in Chiayi County are there to be bought.
Finally, life in the countryside has improved significantly over the past 30 years. According to some voters, the KMT, despite its ills, has made this happen. Many, fearing a loss of this prosperity, will vote KMT. To a lesser extent, many of these voters also fear problems with China if a non-KMT president comes to office.
The local Chiayi camps suggest Chen will receive 90,000-100,000 votes, Lien Chan
A higher turnout rate would indicate the KMT and/or the factions have proved successful in getting voters to the polls. The counting of the ballots on Saturday night will verify which of the above factors have proven important.
But, in any case, Chiayi voters -- like their brethren around the island -- see this election as important both for the future of Taiwan and for themselves.
Bruce Jacobs holds the Chair of Asian Languages and Studies and is director of the Center of East Asian Studies at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. His analysis of politics and society in the Taiwan countryside during the 1970s appeared as Local Politics in a Rural Chinese Cultural Setting: A Field Study of Mazu Township, Taiwan (Canberra, 1980). He is one of the special presidential election analysts for the Taipei Times.
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