Rumors, scandal and the outcome of Taiwan 2012

The campaigns for the January 14 presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan will be remembered mostly for the allegations and counter-allegations made by the main contestants in the race rather than their policy platforms. It would therefore be logical to assume that the headline-grabbing scandals will be determinant factors in voting decision.

They will not. Despite claims, which first emerged in Next Magazine and have since been picked up by international media, that the National Security Council ordered the national security apparatus to spy on President Ma Ying-jeou’s opponents in the election, there is little evidence that such allegations have had any impact on expected voting patterns. This also appears to be the case with repeated allegations that cabinet officials have violated political neutrality by supporting Ma.

The same applies to the charges by Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) that Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, illegally profiteered from her role in Yu Chang Biologics Co when she was vice premier. In both cases (there were other, lesser ones), documents have been brought forth that appear to support the claims advanced by the accusers.

Rather than influence voters, however, the controversies simply have reinforced pre-established views about the candidates and the parties they represent. For the pan-blue, or pro-KMT, camp and the media associated with it, the allegations against Tsai appear to have compounded the view that the DPP was, and remains, corrupt, claims that played a significant role in bring Ma into office in 2008.

On the pan-green, or pro-DPP, side, the allegations of illegal surveillance — which Tsai, if perhaps hyperbolically, has likened to the Watergate scandal — seem to confirm the view that the KMT was, and remains, authoritarian and inclined to use state resources to clamp down on its opponents. Conversely, the DPP’s claims also seem to have reinforced the perception within the pan-blue camp and abroad that the pan-greens are “irrational,” “paranoid” and prone to conspiracy theories.

One consequence of those congealed perceptions is that voting patters have remained unaffected, seriousness of the scandals notwithstanding. How else could we explain the fact that opinion polls conducted before the scandals and those that were held in their wake have yielded very similar results?

In a presidential campaign that can only be described as underwhelming, the scandals and the subsequent negative campaigns have failed to convince voters to change their longstanding political preferences. Where refreshing policy proposals, rather than the vague promises served, could perhaps have swayed voters, scandal failed to do so. The only thing that was achieved in the process is that the age-old blue-green divide was brought into sharper contrast, a consolidation that, sadly, will prevent Taiwan from moving forward as a developing democracy.

J. Michael Cole is deputy news chief and a reporter at the Taipei Times newspaper and a correspondent on China for Jane’s Defence Weekly.