And by Their Friends Ye Shall Know Them

As the Taiwan presidential campaign enters its final week, one striking development has been an outpouring of support for President Ma Ying-jeou by some of Taiwan’s leading businesspeople, including Evergreen Group President Chang Yung-fa 張榮發 and Far Eastern Group Chairman and CEO Douglas Hsu (徐旭東).

On the one hand, it is perfectly understandable that commercial and industrial heavyweights should wish to speak out for Ma, as KMT rule has witnessed a growing rapprochement with China that has greatly enhanced Taiwan’s business environment. This cozy relationship between the party and big business can be traced back to Republican-era China, and may be best represented by the “Aladdin” classic “You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me”. On the other hand, the impact such enthusiastic expressions of support may have the general populace remains to be seen, and reports have already begun to emerge of tensions between management (“suits”) and labor (“shirts”) over which candidate to support.

Apart from rallying old friends to its cause, the KMT has also attempted to use the friends issue against its main rival by utilizing a tactic that might best be referred to as “Pin the A-Bian 阿扁 on the DPP”, where victory is achieved by convincing enough voters (especially independents and first-time voters) that DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen is little more than a successor to the corrupt administration of former President Chen Shui-bian. Whether this tactic can succeed remains to be seen, however, especially since Tsai and the DPP have been able to attract widespread support by avoiding extensive corporate sponsorship in favor of small-scale campaign contributions by ordinary citizens. The results have been strikingly clear in the “three little pigs” fundraising campaign (see my earlier post on this subject), which ended up netting more than NT$200 million from over 143,000 piggybanks donated by supporters nationwide. In order to count this mountain of small bills and even smaller change, the DPP had to recruit 150 volunteers who worked more than 3,000 man-hours for 20 days to operate various bill and coin sorting machines.

The differences between KMT and DPP supporters can also be seen in campaign rallies, as well as the mobilization processes that precede them. The KMT has been running “get out the vote” efforts for decades (including the use of occasionally questionable tactics), and has a stronger ground game due to its links to local elites. It also has the advantages of incumbency, including arranging for government agencies to spend tens of thousands of dollars on advertising related to campaign issues.

However, while the numbers of people attending KMT rallies have consistently been impressive, the degree of uniformity (people wearing identical baseball caps and carrying identical flags) often fails to match the level of enthusiasm, with attendees trickling out during (and at times even before) Ma’s stump speeches. In contrast, DPP rallies (especially those for Tsai) have tended to be much more vibrant and spontaneous (see the following video).

While crowd size and enthusiasm are hardly reliable indicators for predicting election results, the trends described above suggest that this election has indeed turned into a contest between “The People” and “The Machine”. Moreover, the tendency by many analysts to emphasize the importance of Cross-Strait ties and the “92 Consensus” (九二共識) has caused them to neglect the fact that in many ways this election is really about quality of life issues. As I noted in an earlier post for The China Beat, Ma was able to thrash DPP candidate Frank Hsieh in 2008 only partially due to popular desire for closer ties with China; the more important factor was disgust with the corrupt antics of the Chen Shui-bian administration. Moreover, as is also the case in the United States, the majority of voters appear to be concerned about the economy, especially stagnant (or even falling) wages, rising unemployment, higher prices, and an increasing number of companies forcing their workers to take unpaid leave.

If this continues to be the case, and if no last minute “surprises” occur (such as yet another shooting, a new “scandal”, or James Soong suddenly terminating his campaign and announcing unqualified support for the KMT), there is a real risk that Ma may end up losing this election, perhaps by an even larger margin than most people would have expected. If this does occur, then all the KMT’s CEOs and all of its chairmen may not be able to put its rule back together again.

Paul R. Katz  is a Research Fellow in the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica.