The View From Hualien

From my vantage point on the east coast of Taiwan, and frequently commuting to Taipei where I teach social sciences at a national university, I am finding the upcoming election campaigning quiet compared to past years. As I have witnessed all the elections in Taiwan since the democratization process began, this one is in a calm silence. Of course as little trucks are moving about with a loudspeaker blaring support for a candidate, it just seems perfunctory.

The Taiwan electorate will come to vote on 14th January for presidential and national legislative candidates. Nearly 14 million of Taiwan’s 23 million people will select between three presidential contenders: incumbent President and ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) Chairman Ma Ying-jeou, 61, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, 56, and People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong, 69, a former KMT secretary-general.

Four years ago, Frank Hsieh, DPP presidential candidate, tried to keep his party in the Presidential Office. His lackluster campaign faltered, and Ma Ying-jeou returned that office to the KMT with a high majority of votes. In that campaign, Ma portrayed himself as the friend of the people with rural home stays, and promised that the KMT would return the island to its prosperity as in the past.

This time around, it seems Ma has become the lackluster candidate with old rhetorical style – nothing new, and offering hope of stability that only the KMT can offer. On the other hand, in the wake of the Japan earthquake and massive tsunami of 11th March 2011, the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has triggered concern that KMT policy for Taiwan’s nuclear power could be faulty.

Tsai is campaigning on a nuclear review. She proposed to safely phase-out nuclear power by retiring the three existing nuclear plants from the 1970s (the sooner the better) and by not allowing a fourth nuclear power plant to load fuel or begin commercial operation. This, Tsai said, “would avoid adding a fourth ‘time bomb’ to the three existing plants on one of the world’s most seismic active regions.”

James Soong is campaigning as he did in 2000, and as vice-presidential candidate on a KMT ticket in 2004 – both times loosing to the DPP. In 2008, he did not enter the race, and his People First Party suffered legislative setbacks. Although not a prime contender this time, to revitalize his party, he needs to be a candidate.

All said, the political spectrum is set in motion. In the coming days, there will be rallies – yet, I believe the electorate is silently decided. Below my window, on an empty street, a campaign truck with loudspeaker, in the voice of Ma Ying-jeou, rolls by slowly. The message: “Ma, the president, is the best candidate, and the election will be decided by a mere 50,000 votes, therefore its time to act.”

The survey polls must close a week before the election. The polls are seemingly biased to promote candidates. Although it’s interesting to note, when Soong announced his candidacy, Ma’s rating above fifty percent, suddenly dropped. Meanwhile in most polls, Tsai’s ratings have shown gradual ascendancy.

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