Observations from a Taiwanese politics correspondent

With three weeks left before the election day on January 14, here are my observations of the tightly-contested elections:

US messages

The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) announced on Dec. 22 that Taiwan was nominated for inclusion in the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), saying that it was “the culmination of hard work and cooperation between the authorities in Taiwan and the United States.”

Despite the AIT stressing that the announcement was unrelated to the presidential election, the fact that the announcement came three weeks before election day still had the political implication of a US preference in the election – at least for Taiwanese politicians.

In the first of three televised platform presentations on Dec. 23, President Ma Ying-jeou wasted no time in highlighting that the US decision was a reflection of warmer bilateral relations during his term and it was part of his successful diplomacy while the Democratic Progressive party (DPP) said the candidacy has been a collective effort of the government and the Taiwanese people.

This is not the first time the US was said to be sending messages with political implications at the wrong time.

In September, London-based Financial Times quoted an unnamed US official as saying that the US was concerned about stability across the Taiwan Strait if DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen was elected.

The US also sent deputy secretary of energy Daniel Poneman, the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan in over a decade, to Taipei last week.

The US should do what it preaches – maintain neutrality in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election.

Do you believe in polls?

Public opinion polls on the presidential election conducted by various news agencies, thinktanks and institutions have been published almost on a daily basis. Anyone who follows them regularly would find the results very confusing.

While several recent polls showed that Tsai’s support rate had caught up with – even surpassed – Ma’s, most polls still say Ma is ahead.

Sources have said the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) internal poll showed Ma is leading by 7-8 percent, which represents over one million votes while the campaign of People First Party (PFP) chairman James Soong and the national security authority, which conducted its own poll privately, both believed Tsai is going to win by a margin of 2-4 percent, which translates into 260,000 to 520,000 votes.

When Tsai was asked about her opinion toward public opinion polls, she has always said that her campaign will take them “as references.” So you get the idea.

The DPP’s support rate in presidential elections in the past were often underestimated by 10-15 percentage points. It appeared that this year is not the case because more pan-green supporters were willing to express their preferences.

Impact of negative campaigning

The KMT and the DPP have engaged in a war of negative campaigning as the KMT has brought up the case about Yu Chang Biologics Co. and questioned Tsai’s role and alleged improper profiteering before, during and after the formation of the biotech company.

The DPP has answered with a controversial case of the merger of two banks in 2002 when Ma served as Taipei City mayor.

Both parties have accused the other side of “character assassination.”

It seems to me that the negative campaigning from both sides did not benefit their campaigns, as many people expressed their displeasure of the smear war in the newspapers, blogs and social media websites.

As the one which first launched the attack, the KMT’s motive was intriguing. If it is leading by 7-8 percent in support rate as it claims, launching such attack one month before the election day would be unnecessary.

Some analysts observed that, because the election has been so tightly-contested, the KMT was hoping to vie for the support of swing voters by doing this – even if it ended up influencing only one per cent of the electorate.

Legislative Yuan elections

The KMT is trying to secure 60 of 113 legislative seats in the legislative elections while the DPP is eyeing 50. These goals tell different stories.

The KMT’s goal of 60 shows how bad the party has done since 2008, when it won 81 of 113 seats. However, if it is able to win 60, the KMT will still control the legislature.

The interesting thing is, while the DPP’s slogan for the LY elections appeal for support to gain more than half of the 113 legislative seats, the party already knew it would not accomplish the feat, which was why it has a goal of 50.

A phenomenon worth noticing is the so-called “split voting,” which means a voter votes for party A in the legislative elections and party B in the presidential election.

There have been reports in southern Taiwan that KMT legislative candidates asked voters to support them and said it’s fine to vote for Tsai in the presidential election. The main reason is the KMT, Ma in particular, has been unpopular in the south.

Chris Wang is a politics reporter and analyst for the Taipei Times