A few days before the election, Taiwan’s presidential race is too close to call. It has been like a tug-of-war without an obvious winner for the past few weeks. Unlike the earlier stage of the campaign when Tsai Ing-wen was the obvious underdog with little or no chance to win, she is now posing a deadly threat to Ma Ying-jeou’ road to re-election.
However this assertion probably cannot be backed by any reliable opinion polls in Taiwan. In fact Ma has been the favored candidate who leads Tsai by a margin of 2% to 10%, or even higher in all polls. But as any experienced observer of Taiwan’s politics will say immediately that Taiwan-based media are not credible when it comes to election polling. This is largely caused by their respective political colors and partisan agendas. And for anyone who is running as a KMT candidate, a lead that is smaller than 5% in pre-election polls is almost like a verdict of defeat. This is because potential DPP voters are systematically under-represented in standard polling practices from past experiences.
Today many turn to the Exchange of Future Events of Cheng-chi University for hints. Using a different methodology, it has a more credible, though short, record confirmed by post-election results. In its recent official release issued on January 3, the agency predicted a Tsai victory by a margin of 7.2%, and 52 seats (or 46% of the total) for the DPP in the legislative election. But its accuracy is also subject to reasonable doubt, since the project is still young and the weighting scheme it adopts may need to be tested more rigorously as time goes by. Plus, like its analogy to the financial market, the likelihood in any market of a sudden correction of 7% cannot be ruled out.
At this point, this tight race reminds me of what had happened in 2000 and 2004. The last one-and-two punches landed by the candidates before the bell rings, sometimes referred to as “ao-bu” (Taiwanese pronunciation for low or disreputable tactics), can and will matter in an intense and tight competition like the current one. A further factor that is likely to have a decisive impact is already widely discussed (among other likelihoods such as gambling at the election result): i.e. will James Soong make any dramatic move, and will a larger proportion of his supporters swing back to Ma’s or to Tsai? Considering all of above, it is clear to me that in this presidential campaign no one can claim victory or feel assured to celebrate before the votes are practically all accounted for on January 14.
I think many issues mentioned in the media and in this blog are all important in this campaign. Cross-Strait relations, the widening gap in income disparity, welfare and justice issues, rising real-estate prices, national health and tax reforms, and the gender, age, and ethnic backgrounds of voters. Also important are the dynamics associated with campaign tactics, including proper use and misuse of government resources and governmental leaks and legal battles, name calling, framing or “counter-framing”. But to me the most significant meaning of this election is that it can be seen as a referendum on Ma and his party’s line in hastening their pursuit of economic integration and dependence on China in the past four years. After all the nasty rhetoric, debates and name calling, it all comes down to a very simplified term called the “92 Consensus”.
The 92 Conesus is credited as the “foundation” of all friendly engagements and accords signed between Ma and Beijing’s representatives since 2008. These accords contain many economic concessions originating from Beijing’s “good-will” as many have said. However, as some Taiwanese businessman have gradually realized, in China one does not and cannot win competitive bidding or make business deals openly in a market that is highly regulated by Chinese government and officials. The hidden rule is that business opportunities and deals are made possible behind the scene because they are often “gifts” from Chinese officials with political endorsement, in exchange for returned reciprocity. Recent accords signed with Beijing, plus highly advertised privileged purchases of Taiwanese products and agricultural produce from many Chinese provincial governors and representatives traveling to Taiwan bear the resemblances too well.
Ma was careful on many occasions to defend himself from being portrayed by his opponent as a protectorate of Beijing. And yet he has no hesitation about claiming “peace dividends” derived from recent cross-Strait developments as the major accomplishment of his first term, and the beginning of Taiwan’s “Golden Era”. Objectively speaking, this 92 Consensus was construed by the KMT and the CCP, and become widely supported by Taiwan’s key media and business interests, and by mainlander population and pro-unification voters. Even the U.S. appears to approve this development when cross-Strait tensions in effect became reduced following this “Consensus”. But this has been not the DPP’s and Tsai’s position. They argued that the alleged Consensus is a conspiracy of China, a sugarcoating of China’s strategic ambition to swallow Taiwan. The KMT is accused of being Beijing’s accomplice and Ma a liar. Today, both the CCP and the KMT have issued stern warnings: no one should expect business to be conducted as usual if Tsai were elected and the Consensus was not respected as a result. Taiwan might be cornered once more like it was under Chen Shui-bian, not just politically but also economically. But this warning does not seem to stop Tsai from mobilizing a large crowd and catching up from a distant polling position. Why? Are her party and supporters deaf or blinded from the reality? Why is Tsai able to pull the DPP back to the front stage and become a serious contender?
I observe that Tsai and the DPP have been successful in channeling the widespread discontent and distrust already existing in Taiwan for some time against the incumbent administration. Tsai’s campaign boosted the morale and turned the DPP from living under the shadow of Chen Shui-bian’s corruption scandal to become a newly reborn political force. It is evident that Tsai’s support comes from where the DPP has been the favored party, from regions where manufacturing workers, farmers, fisherman, self-employed and small enterprises make up the majority of the population. And her party is still the only viable alternative for Taiwanese nationalists, and some social activists like environmentalists. She is also more appealing to the younger generation in comparison to other DPP big shots. She can lead and unite a divided DPP, and get support from the other part of the electorate that feels bullied by the KMT and Beijing’s alliance, coerced to accept Beijing’s gifts, threatened or marginalized by all the “good things” and concessions allegedly radiating from the 92 Consensus. Tsai promises that she will build a “Taiwan Consensus” to replace the “92 Consensus” if elected. She is of course vague and cannot offer any specifics at the moment. And realistically this is a very difficult, if not impossible, promise to keep since she is bound to be boycotted and undermined by both the KMT and Beijing from the first day on if she becomes elected, without any doubt.
At the end of the day, as happened in Taiwan’s past elections, the Blue and the Green camps each stands on the north-south, mainlander-Taiwanese, upper-lower social stratum, high-flying cross-strait businessman and ordinary grass-roots people cleavages. And while nationalistic confrontation appears to have receded, it is engrained in the debates surrounding the “92 Consensus” versus the “Taiwan Consensus”.
I think that of course Ma still has a shot to win the presidential campaign, but the DPP will succeed in gaining more seats in the Legislature. If it cannot upset the KMT’s dominance this time (though I think the chances are high), it can perform more effective checks on the administration power than before. I have no doubt whatsoever that the DPP has rebounded convincingly from its humiliating defeat in 2008. The turning around of Tsai’s campaign, and the DPP candidates for the legislative election was not a result of her charisma or the DPP’s brushed up platform, but rising dis-satisfaction with Ma’s leadership and the tilting of the KMT’s policy toward special interest groups who are sucked into the “gifts” Beijing have awarded them, or may award them in the future. I am sure that voters must have heard the warning shots fired by KMT officials, business hot shots and Beijing. But for them the more important priority resides in putting the political brakes on the seemingly runaway westbound express train driven by Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT’s business allies.
Professor Mau-kuei Chang is Research Fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica.