Reflections on election night

Last night, Friday 13th January, the candidates rallied their respective supporters – President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) in front of his office in Taipei, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Banciao at New Taipei City Hall, and James Soong of the People First Party (PFP) in Taichung.

For the rally with candidate Tsai, former President Lee Teng-hui (b. 15th January 1923) joined her on stage giving an endorsement worthy of a legendary politician. He was the heir of the KMT Chiang Ching-kuo presidency in 1988 and the first president elected by the Taiwan public in 1996. Lee’s appearance with Tsai and her running mate, Su Chia-chuan, was heart warming. He said, “I am standing here for Taiwan, the land I love so much.”

Leading up to the election in the past week – the candidates did the best they could to reach out to their potential voters. Tens of thousands of Taiwan citizens arrived from China to cast their ballot (it was reported 385 additional flights were scheduled from China). Young people becoming newly eligible for this election were able to participate. For the candidates, these ‘arriving’ voters were making the difference.

It was last weekend, Saturday 7th January, a unique event happened. Former president Chen Shui-bian was permitted to give his last respects to his mother-in-law, Wu Wang-hsia, who passed away a week earlier, 31st December. Six hundred police and officers escorted Chen to the Tainan funeral home. As the minivan arrived at 8:50 am, Chen immediately emerged and threw himself down on the red carpet and crawled to show his humble respect. Then given a microphone, and televised, in soliloquy he said, “When we met last, I told my mother-in-law that I did not shame my country. During my administration, three great achievements took place 1. the ‘Snow Mountain Tunnel’, connecting Taipei to Ilan, 2. Taipei 101 [world’s highest building at the time], and 3. the high speed rail service – all contributing to making Taiwan a modern efficient country.” Chen referred to himself as unfilial for not attending to her before she passed away. He gave his appreciation to his mother-in-law for supporting his marriage to her daughter, Wu Shu-jen, who provided him with a sense of “Taiwanese consciousness.” Continuing, he said, “His wife requested him to accept only half his presidential salary. She was not greedy for money as people said.” The former president seemed healthy, and his political will unabated.

For most Taiwanese the conviction and imprisonment in 2009 of the former president and his wife seemed harsh. Some opposition leaders called his treatment by the KMT, “a new white terror” referring to the way people were treated under martial law from 1949 to 1987. Yet, Chen entrapped himself by enacting stringent laws to be used again his perception of a corrupt KMT party that abused its power against the people. And in turn the KMT used the new laws to ensnare Chen.

During 2011 the KMT government utilized national funds to celebrate a hundred years since the founding of the Republic of China (ROC) by Dr Sun Yat-sen. On government buildings slogans read “100 Republic of China (Taiwan).” President Ma instituted academic seminars, trade and security conferences, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss the accomplishments of the ROC as the continuum of the 1911 revolution and its hope of liberty for the Chinese nation. Much pride echoed at these events.

An in-office president has the dual advantage of holding the reins of government, and its national legacy of pride. The opposition has the out-of-office disadvantage of finding fault with its own governmental institutions. As the KMT and ROC are so closely tied together, it is difficult to separate the two entities. And, the people of Taiwan have been educated to feel proud of their country associated with greater China. President Chen tried his best to replace the Chinese legacy with a Taiwan-centric policy, with some success, and then was ultimately blocked by the KMT ruled legislature.

For Tsai, her party attempted to localize nationalism for the Taiwanese. Yet, how can you ignore China, and the overlapping claim the ruling KMT has with China?

This evening Saturday 14th January, the election outcome showed Ma at 51.6%, Tsai at 45.6%, and Soong 2.8%. A jubilant Ma arrived on stage to declare he would continue to keep Taiwan safe. He further said that during the election he listened to the opposition parties, DPP and PFP, about their grievances and learned from them, such as the widening disparity between the rich and the poor, and the other issues raised concerning the public. For these questions, he would be vigilant and gather the leaders of the opposition parties to attend a meeting every six months “to find out what is best to do for the country.” Ma said, “I will use my life to guard the identity of Taiwan.”

Tsai addressed her people who were weeping in the Taipei rain to say she took responsibility for the election outcome, and she would resign from her DPP chairmanship. Yet, she said the party has come a long way since its ineffectiveness and near collapse four years ago. Tsai stated, “Our opposition has a powerful role to play in keeping the ruling party attending to our people’s needs.”

David Blundell is Professor of Taiwan and Asia-Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University