The Heat is Rising- Notes from Taipei

With only few days to go, the election campaign is becoming very visible in the streets of Taipei. When wrote on this blog before Christmas that there was no election feeling on the ground in Taipei, things have by now changed quite drastically. Well, it was high time, for sure.

On my way to work this morning, 15 election campaign sound trucks passed me (I counted!), inflicting varying degrees of noise pollution upon me. The number of campaign flags introducing candidates for both the presidential and the legislative elections has exploded. Meeting new Taiwanese friends, their first question these days is invariably, “Do you know that there are elections going on in Taiwan?” – how could I not know with this media coverage? And the parties are bringing out their most fancy campaign props: my favourite item has so far been a glittery, blue blinking LED-lighted flag sporting the faces of Ma and his running mate.

Also, the foreign academic world is getting ready for the elections. Numerous conferences, workshops and presentations are going on in Taiwan to discuss what has been – or has not been – achieved during the past 3.9 years under Ma Ying-jeou, and what the potential impact of either election outcome will be. Also, a steady stream of academics from Europe, the United States, Australia and many other places is flocking into Taiwan with the aim of gathering a first-hand experience of these elections, which could leave a tremendous mark on Taiwan’s future.

What is these academics’ assessment of the presidential elections? Despite polls still suggesting last week that Ma’s victory could be within the margin of statistical error, there appears to be a consensus that Ma Ying-jeou has the better chance of bringing home the election victory. Even rather green-leaning academics have started bracing themselves for a defeat for Tsai Ing-wen.

The reasons for this assessment do not lie in the fact that Ma Ying-jeou has managed to shine as the better candidate during the campaigns. Rather, to the Taiwanese voter, so the observation, he is the known evil and his policies will come as no surprise. Tsai Ing-wen’s weak points are not only the threat her election would pose to stability across the Taiwan Strait – foreigners seem anyway to be more worried about such a development than the Taiwanese. A bigger issue for the Taiwanese is that Tsai is perceived as lacking charisma, although admittedly also Ma does not score highly in this ranking. And finally, the question worrying the Taiwanese is whether Tsai really has the backing of her party, which, of course, could decisively limit her room for action if elected president.

James Soong is the clear loser of all polls, which often leads to the question what he actually expected from running in this race. Again, foreign observers have reached a consensus there. The main motivation for Soong was to improve his People First Party’s turnout for the simultaneous legislative elections by campaigning on this national platform. However, stealing a few votes from Ma Ying-jeou is seen as an intended side effect. This being said, polls show that Soong not only manages to draw votes from the KMT, but also potential protest votes from the DPP. This indicates that Soong has become the choice for those Taiwanese disappointed by Ma Ying-jeou, but who still prefer not to give their vote to Tsai Ing-wen, as Shelley Rigger observed today during her recent talk at the National Taiwan University.

While academics are looking into their crystal balls to foretell the potential outcome of this election, one thing is for sure – watching this election can beat a Hollywood blockbuster in terms of suspense. I will have my popcorn ready in front of the TV on 14 January.

Sigrid Winkler received her PhD from the Free University of Brussels, and is currently conducting postdoctoral research in Taiwan