A watershed election

Taiwan will hold what will probably turn out to be a watershed election on January 14 next year. Voters will pick a president and vice president and members of the Legislative Yuan (the unicameral lawmaking body in Taiwan). It will be the first time elections will be held for the executive and legislative branch simultaneously. It is likely the results of the election will impact Taiwan politically and in a number of other ways for some years to come.

There are a number of factors that need to be considered in understanding and predicting the results of the elections.

Domestic issues include first the economy. Taiwan’s economy suffered from a recession in 2008 that lasted through much of 2009. President Ma and the KMT suffered a loss of voter support as indicated by public opinion polls as a result. In late 2009 and through 2010 growth was quite impressive. Recently it has slowed down, but remains respectable.  The question is: Will the economy help Ma and the KMT or not? The DPP has countered the contention by both that they have put the economy back on track, saying that the gap between rich and poor is still increasing; that big business has benefited, not small business; that the north has prospered while the south has not. Overall, the economy is in a good position , but the trends are not necessarily positive.

Another issue that may influence voters is the issue of governance. The reputations of Ma and the KMT are not so good in this area. How important is governance? Is the DPP better at solving such problems than the KMT?

Then there are various issues unique to this election. Lee Teng-hui is going on trial for taking government funds and money laundering. James Soong has entered the presidential race; he is in the process of getting signatures to ensure his name is on the ballot. His motives are not clear. History indicates that when the KMT splits it loses: 1994 and 2000.

Taiwan’s relations with China and the U.S. constitute external variables. The Ma administration claims it can maintain relations better with both. There are plenty of indications this is true. But will his success in dealing with China create a backlash that Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP can exploit? Certainly they can to some extent. Many people feel Ma is getting too close to China and that endangers Taiwan’s sovereignty. Ma claims the U.S. supports him and not the DPP. This rings true. But is the Obama administration supporting Taiwan? There are many reasons to doubt this. Academics and various pundits in the U.S., especially those supporting or advising the Obama administration, suggest the U.S. should abandon Taiwan. The specific issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is said to be the barometer of how Ma is doing. Yet what has happened in this realm has sent mixed signals.

There are various theories at play in Taiwan that are supposed to help predict the election. But none of these has worked very well over time, other than some obvious ideas about the economy and who can afford an expensive campaign. Opinion polls abound. But most seem to favor one side or the other and report optimistically for their favourite. How much are they to be believed? Most indicate the number of undecided voters is large; that is believable. Thus the election is up for grabs.

John F Copper is  Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee and is the author of more than thirty books on China and Taiwan.