5 Reasons I Overestimated Tsai Ing-wen’s Chances

1. The DPP had too much ground to make up.

The only DPP presidential administration to date, Chen Shui-bian 2000-2008, was characterised by severe governance problems (some of its own making, some because of KMT obstructionism in the legislature), permanent ideological mobilization, gridlock across the Strait, increasing international marginalization and, ultimately, corruption scandals that went right to the top. Fatigued and dis-ilussioned, voters in 2008 gave presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou a landslide victory and the KMT a huge legislative majority. Subsequently jailed for corruption, Chen’s fall from grace left the DPP in disarray. For a time it looked as if the party would never get back to being a viable opposition, let alone challenge for power. From the ashes of these setbacks, Tsai Ing-wen slowly emerged as a figure that could re-unify a party riven by factions and who could become an electorally viable candidate. Although she failed in her bid to become Mayor of the new municipality of Xinbei, she was highly competitive. Indeed, the DPP candidates in the 2010 Municipal elections (the equivalent of mid-term elections) performed above expectations, suggesting the party had come through its challenges and was once again competitive electorally. In hindsight, the DPP’s performance (they won two of five positions) was more symptomatic of a mid-term dip for the Ma administration, which despite its landslide victory, had gotten off to a slow start. Furthermore, the DPP has always performed better in local and municipal contests than it has in national executive and legislative elections. From where it came from in the aftermath of 2008, it was unrealistic to think that Tsai, as good as she was, could do something that no DPP presidential challenger had ever done before and get 50% of the vote.

2. Its very difficult to defeat an incumbent.

In democracies the world over, it is difficult to defeat an incumbent leader, unless he or she has done an exceptionally poor job. But even then, electorates are not wont to change willy nilly. Think how unpopular George W. Bush and Chen Shui-bian were during their first terms, and yet they were still re-elected. Indeed, no sitting ROC President has ever failed to secure a second term. Lee Teng-hui was non-elected incumbent President in 1996 and was elected (in a landslide) to another four year term in the first direct election for president. In 2004, despite all the problems caused by divided government and the poor performance of his government, Chen was able to convince voters to give him another term. Ma Ying-jeou has not been a universally popular president during his first term. The speed of his détente policies have worried many Taiwanese. The relative failure of his promised economic programs has put focus on the ungeneralized distribution of the benefits of ECFA, his major policy achievement. Yet, many of the economic problems that Taiwan suffered in the last four years are common to economies around the world; for all its political isolation, Taiwan’s economy is heavily integrated into the global economy. It is unrealistic to expect it to completely avoid the fallout from a global economic crisis. Furthermore, Ma has overseen, and directly driven, a policy that has warmed cross-Strait relations to a historical high. Given that the majority of Taiwanese acknowledge China as Taiwan’s major economic and strategic opportunity/threat, we shouldn’t under-estimate Ma’s record on this issue. Of course, incumbency is not only about policy performance, and I have written here previously about the incumbency advantages that Ma enjoyed, some common to all incumbents, some specific to the incomplete dismantling of political structures from the one party era. The endurance of these features should not be ignored. At the same time, it is not at all unusual for political parties to cultivate and enjoy the support of big business, influence media or channel resources to influential supporters.

3. Campaigns don’t make that much difference

Decades of research (although primarily on the US), shows that campaigns are not usually critical determinants of electoral outcomes. There are naturally exceptions, e.g. Korea’s “internet election” in 2002, but in general, the majority of voters make up their minds before the campaign even begins. This is probably especially true of polities where the campaign period is relatively short, although this observation is dampened by the emergence of “the permanent campaign”. Tsai Ing-wen ran a brilliant campaign. She was disciplined in staying on message, developed a persona of real presidential bearing, and took maximum advantage of Ma’s missteps. She performed well in the debates and didn’t make any major mistakes. Ma’s campaign on the other hand was a series of disasters. It handed the DPP a fundraising windfall (the piggybanks), was clumsy in its attacks on Tsai’s Hakka roots, and was involved in a highly unseemly Watergate-type scandal. Despite a focus on the economy and stable relations with China, Ma’s campaign quickly and frequently strayed off message, getting involved in unnecessary and unsavoury marginalia. Ultimately, many observers, including myself, bought into the momentum of the Tsai campaign, and forgot that short-term factors like what goes on during the campaign, do not normally decide the outcome of an election. I should acknowledge that some contributors to this blog were not so easily fooled. In particular, Gunter Schubert’s analysis was spot-on.

4. Cross-Strait relations were more salient than and indivisible from other issues.

This election was about many things, including a range of economic issues (income disparity, unemployment, young people’s prospects, cost of housing, etc.) and Ma’s performance on the job (in terms of policy and personal effectiveness). But ultimately, these and many other issues, could not be separated from the issue of relations with China. Although the national identity aspect of cross-Strait relations was not anywhere near as salient as in past elections, the speed and unchecked nature of Ma’s cross-Strait détente appeared to have spooked the median voter (who unequivocally wants the status quo to endure). Ma badly misread public opinion with his Peace Accord idea, which coincided with a drop in poll support and was hastily removed from sight. The benefits that Ma promised would follow ECFA have not been generalized—big business and professionals have benefited, small businesses, farmers and blue collar workers have not. But in the latter part of the campaign, differences between the two candidates crystalized around the ‘two consenses’. Ma supports the “1992 Consensus” (one China with different interpretations) which has proven itself to be a workable platform from which to engage China. Tsai proffered the idea of a “Taiwan consensus” (there must be bipartisan agreement before further moves toward economic and other relations with China). The former is a proven basis for engaging China; the latter appeared to me to be an abstraction that was doomed to failure in its means (since when have the two blocs been able to agree on anything?) and end (acceptance of 1992 is China’s bottom line for cooperation). Ultimately, Ma was able to boil the election down to a choice between 1992/stability vs. Taiwan consensus/instability. This is a variation on a theme that the KMT, the CCP (and implicitly, the US) have been telling Taiwanese voters since 1996. And as in 1996 (Lee vs. Peng), voters choose the devil they know over the potentially risky alternative. We should also acknowledge that Taiwanese have long wanted to enjoy a role in international society commensurate with Taiwan’s status as a global economy and liberal democracy. And although it has been necessary to accept the Chinese Taipei designation to achieve it, Ma has increased Taiwan’s participation in international society. Many readers will complain that this has necessitated unacceptable sacrifices in terms of ROC sovereignty, and that what I call compromise is equivalent to selling out. But given China’s intractable bottom line (and the increasing influence that it is able to mobilize), compromises of this nature are the only choice that Taiwan has. The alternative is the melancholy marginalization of the Chen era.

5. Years of unreliable polling.

As I discussed previously, Taiwanese media polls have a poor record, with apparently “systematic idiosyncrasies” leading to consistent over-representation of support for the KMT. The last couple of elections also saw the emergence of a seemingly better alternative, the XFuture/National Chengchih University election market. Throughout the campaign there was a substantial discrepancy between the “blue-friendly” media polls and the “more neutral” election market. Based on prior bad experience with the media polls, it seemed only natural to give greater credence to what the election market was showing instead. In the event, the “unreliable” media polls were spot-on. The 4-8 point gap they consistently gave Ma from months before the election, prefigured Ma’s actual 6 point victory. This is a black eye for the election market and temporary, “vindication” of the media polls.

Mail me at jonathan.sullivan@nottingham.ac.uk, follow me on Twitter @jonlsullivan, or access my papers at http://jonlsullivan.com