Earlier this week, we travelled with an international election observation group to Kaohsiung and Tainan to observe local electoral activities. After briefly visiting the newly built Kaohsiung Arena, the group proceeded directly to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Kaohsiung Ma Ying-jeou Campaign Headquarters. The deputy director of the headquarters provided the group with a short briefing and then answered questions put forth by observers. First, in response to a query regarding fears of vote buying, he asserted that these rumors in Kaohsiung were all false and concocted by both the media and the opposition. He also believed that the political campaign environment was fair to all parties.
Second, he was asked whether the KMT was concerned that college students would find themselves unwilling or unable to return home to vote because of the proximity of the elections to their final examinations. The deputy directly expressed his full confidence that Taiwanese youth loved their country and would put their electoral responsibilities first.
Third, an observer noted that because the presidential election date was moved from late March to mid-January, there would be an approximately four month gap between the election date and the presidential inauguration. Therefore, he wondered whether this might present a problem. The deputy explained that the gap existed because the legislature needs to be inaugurated by February 10th, and so the presidential election must be held before that time. He expressed his complete faith in the democratic process, and promised that even if his party lost the elections, the transfer of power would be peaceful.
Fourth, when asked how much money the KMT had spent on its campaign activities, the deputy director claimed that he did not know because he was not in charge of financial affairs.
A number of the observers picked up on the way in which he characterized not only the identity of the Taiwanese people, but also the country’s relationship with China. At one point, he stated that both sides were all Chinese and that China and Taiwan were indivisible.
Following this visit, the delegation traveled to the election campaign headquarters for Democratic Progressive Party legislative candidate Chao Tian-ling. An aide greeted the group and answered a number of initial questions before the candidate himself appeared.
First, when asked how much money the campaign office had spent on the election, the aide responded that they estimated that the entire campaign would cost approximately US $500,000.
Second, the aide drew a sharp comparison between their opponent, Chiu Yi, a KMT legislator infamous for his negative campaigning and mudslinging, and their own candidate. While Chiu Yi engaged in partisan bickering and smear attacks, their candidate was focused on city development, children, art and culture, policies, interacting with constituents.
Third, the aide mentioned that there are thirteen local support groups on call twenty-four hours a day to help prevent vote buying and block the spread of anonymous letters attacking the candidate.
The candidate was introduced by his old professor Dr. Wu, now the president of a local university in Kaohsiung. He related the story of how Chao told him that he was determined to run his campaign according to his Christian faith and steadfastly refuse to engage in dirty tricks or negative campaigning. He said that if he was to win the election, he wanted to do so fairly.
Chao Tian-ling expressed strong confidence that he would not only win the election, but win by a comfortable margin. He also noted that he had successfully blocked two attempts by supporters of his opponent to smear him via anonymous letters within the past week alone.
Former Deputy Minister of Education Fan Hsun-lu also greeted the observation group before their departure and welcomed them on behalf of Mayor Chen Chu.
In Tainan, the election observation tour began by visiting the Democratic Progressive Party Tsai Ing-wen local campaign headquarters. DPP stalwart Huang Kun-hu joined the event. The director of the election headquarters, Tsai Wang-chuan, was the host.
The Democratic Progressive Party expressed its concern that the administration was using government resources to support its presidential and legislative candidates. It also felt that the election environment remained unfair to the DPP, because of the KMT’s financial advantage as well as their proclivity toward vote buying. Although they asserted that the vote buying problem was alleviated under the DPP administration, they said that vote buying had reappeared during the past 3 or so years.
A campaign worker remarked to one of us afterwards that he was extremely worried about vote buying in rural Tainan. DPP heavyweight Mark Chen, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs and National Security Council head, had been asked to run in Tainan and is heavily favored to win. However, the worker said that the KMT has already swept rural areas twice in an attempt to buy votes. Each time, Mark Chen immediately dropped approximately five percentage points in the polls. If Mark Chen loses what is viewed as an extremely “safe” legislative contest, it may well raise strong suspicious of vote buying in southern Taiwan.
The election group also visited James Soong’s campaign election headquarters in Tainan. The small office was located in the bottom floor of a building owned by a supporter. Due to a lack of funds, they have relied heavily on volunteer support. Volunteers have designed and printed the campaign literature to keep costs down. A highlight of the visit was a fake movie poster that placed James Soong’s head on the body of the star of Seediq Bale. The effect was to portray Soong as a protector of the Taiwanese people as well as demonstrate his resolute nature. They revealed that they have spent only NT $200,000 (under USD $7,000) on their campaign efforts in Tainan.
There were small packets of rice sitting on a front table of the campaign headquarters. Donated by a local farmer, they carried the label 平安米, or Peace Rice. The small packets symbolized Soong’s ability to bring peace and prosperity to Taiwan.
The Soong camp argued that as a small political party, the KMT and the DPP possess an unfair electoral advantage. Despite the fact that they would admit that they are a “deep blue” party, they characterize themselves as presenting a third way for voters. They highlighted James Soong’s vast administrative experience, including his positions as personal secretary to former President Chiang Ching-kuo, Secretary-General of the KMT, and the Republic of China Provincial Governor, during which time he strongly established himself as an effective leader. They also rejected allegations of any financial misconduct during his tenure. In fact, they argued that such KMT accusations and smear tactics cost Soong the 2000 election. They added that as was the case during that time, the KMT is once again using fake or manipulated polling data to create the impression that Soong possesses low levels of support in Taiwan.
Finally, the group witnessed a quintessentially Taiwanese campaigning activity, namely 掃街 or street sweeping. Candidates, their aides, and their volunteers travel by either foot or by jeep (particularly in rural areas) to engage in grassroots campaigning and interact directly with the people. Supporters brings signs, pamphlets, flags, and occasionally even simple musical instruments. Despite the fact that he is already 76 years old, DPP legislative candidate Mark Chen insisted on walking the 7km parade route to demonstrate his excellent health. He was joined by DPP Tainan City Councilor Wang Ding-yu, who is running for re-election. The supporters walking with the candidates were both extremely friendly and boisterous. Their signs highlighted issues such as the candidates’ dedication to protecting Taiwanese sovereignty, unsurprising in staunchly nationalistic Tainan.
Strangely (although surely not a coincidence), the KMT legislative candidate followed closely behind Mark Chen, choosing to 掃街 along the exact same route at the same time. His slogan was “I’ll be standing right beside you.”
Julia M. Famularo is a Research Affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and a fourth-year doctoral student in Modern East Asian Political History at Georgetown University. She was assisted in writing this report by Michael Chen, a political science student at Stanford.