Daily shorts Nov 8

There are several “election overviews” out there. Of the more contemporary ones, Paul Katz has a piece out today at the excellent China Beat and David Brown one at CSIS. A couple of older projections are also still valid and useful: Dafydd Fell has a piece at Brookings from March and Jacques DeLisle wrote this one for FPRI. These pieces have different slants and focuses, but there are several consistencies.
Each author expresses a degree of surprise that the presidential race is so close: Given Ma’s landslide victory in 2008 (reportedly a combination of voters wanting to sanction the DPP for CSB’s failings coupled with Ma’s attractive and untainted demeanour), the disarray that the DPP found itself in and the untested and somewhat unusual characteristics of its presidential nominee. Rather than a simplistic and undifferentiated notion of the election being a de facto referendum on Ma’s China policy, the authors invoke the relative failure of Ma’s programs to address key socio-economic issues. A coherent and believable plan for the economy top-to-bottom is seen as a key factor.

That there is concern among voters on what Paul Katz calls “social justice” issues, is beneficial for Tsai and the DPP generally, with its history of fighting for welfare, farmers and smallholders. Indeed, CSB won election in 2000 on just such a platform–forced as he was to steer clear of anything smacking of Taiwan independence. Each author mentions that “Taiwan identity” is, after the excesses of the 2004 campaign and CSB’s second term, not something that Tsai can afford to over-emphasize. Neither can Ma rely on his staple of previous campaigns, his character. Although not tainted by corruption, all the authors observe how Ma has lost his personal lustre, appearing at times weak and ineffective. DPP candidates running against Ma have primed voters to this view through several campaigns and we should expect this to be a focus again.

Despite the salience of domestic “well being” issues, this election is, paradoxically, the first since 1996 in which cross-Strait relations are explicitly a factor. According to my own research (e.g. here), in 2000, domestic issues and personal attacks predominated. Relations with China were not particularly salient (except in attacks on CSB) and learning a lesson from 1996 China was relatively low key during the campaign. In 2004, rather than relations with China (from a policy perspective) the campaign was dominated by Taiwan identity appeals (from both camps interestingly) that were cast within the ideological arena. China as hostile Other was an explicit ideational component of the “defensive referendum” and the rhetoric that surrounded it, but in terms of policy, China and cross-Strait relations were almost redundant. As several of the authors remark, the greater salience of cross-Straits policy (which of course encompasses numerous policy sectors) is advantageous to Ma, both because the KMT has made the “stability” frame its own, and Tsai’s reluctance to put forward a strong and viable alternative. Tsai’s “strategic ambiguity” is understandable given the tightrope she is walking with voters and her own party, and that a misstep would be all the KMT needs to keep China on the agenda (to Tsai’s ongoing disadvantage).

The further similarity with 2000 is the potential for a competitive third candidate, again played by Soong. Neither of the two recent pieces quite know what to make of Soong; which is reassuring, because neither do I. (Although see this definitive analysis of 2000). One thing I can predict is that if Soong stays in, and shows he can be competitive (10-15%), this campaign will witness a lot of negativity (for reasons explicated in my paper here); like 2000, which was by some margin the most negative campaign (using campaign advertising to measure campaign tone) we have seen to date. (A lot of people have the impression that 2004 was particularly bitter, but overall the level of negativity was lower than in 2000; primarily because in 2000 all three candidates ran some negative ads, but in 2004 only the KMT/PFP did). Campaigns generally become increasingly negative when the competition is tight (check) and the competitors are forced to fight on the same issues rather than talking past each other (check).

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