In March this year, I wrote a piece for the Brookings Northeast Asia Commentary looking ahead to Taiwan’s Jan. 14 national elections. With just over two months until voting day, I thought this would be a good chance to revisit this important topic.
It is all too common in the West to hear people complain that elections do not matter. Fortunately, we cannot say this about Taiwan. Since 2008, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has brought about a radical transformation in cross-strait relations and left an important mark on Taiwan’s modern history. It is very unlikely so much would have happened if former premier Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had won the presidency.
So what is special about this campaign?
First, it will be the first time that presidential and legislative elections are held simultaneously, so this campaign feels very different from previous contests.
From my own observations of the national press, it seems the legislative campaigns, overshadowed by the race for the presidency, have completely disappeared. Previous legislative elections received far more media attention. This is unfortunate, as one of the important lessons of the DPP era was that legislative elections are as important as presidential ones. A critical reason why former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) achieved so little was that his party never controlled the legislature.
The importance of the legislature means it deserves real democratic scrutiny: It is not getting this in the current campaign. This term, Ma had a huge legislative majority, but he has delivered very little in terms of domestic reforms. It has been a wasted opportunity.
Over the years, the DPP has tended to put too much stress on presidential elections and neglected legislative campaigning. This year appears to be no exception. This has been a serious mistake in judgement as the legislature represents the most effective institution for checking the KMT.
Second, this has been the least passionate presidential election in Taiwan’s history. In all four previous contests there was genuine voter passion for at least one of the tickets and on some occasions for the two camps. I do not feel this kind of voter enthusiasm this time. Both camps have some catchy TV ads and slogans, but neither has yet come up with anything like an inspiring vision for Taiwan’s future.
Third, I am surprised by how little has changed in terms of the poll standings of the two camps since my March article. My initial understanding was that Ma had a narrow, but not insurmountable lead over his potential DPP rivals. This remains the case against DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) today. In the election campaigns of 2000 and 2004, we saw huge support swings, but so far nothing like that has happened this time. As always, we need to be highly cautious in how we read Taiwanese election polls, considering the political bias of the polling organizations and underestimation of certain partisan support groups. However, it would only take a minor swing for Tsai to win.
China policy has been central to the campaign. This issue seems to be more prominent on the agenda than in 2008, when domestic issues were more influential. Tsai has proposed a “Taiwan consensus,” arguing that Taiwan should try to find domestic agreement on China and cross-strait policies before embarking on further agreements with China. I have made a similar appeal in a previous Taipei Times article. She appears more pragmatic than Chen was on China, but what Tsai has still not fully explained is how the DPP can engage with China without the so-called “1992 consensus.” How would she avoid a repeat of the 1995-2008 cross-strait stalemate?