The campaign for the January 16 Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections has now less than one month left, but it is reaching one of its most important points, maybe the last occasion that the candidates will have to change voters’ opinions about them and about their positions.
As things stand now, Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen is headed for a landslide victory which might also be echoed in the first-ever absolute majority for her party at the Legislative Yuan. Kuomintang Chairman Eric Liluan Chu, who only became his party’s candidate two months ago by replacing its previous choice, is trailing by a wide margin, while People First Party Chairman James Soong rates as a distant third in most opinion polls.
The three contenders will receive a chance to improve those positions when they face each other and questions from the public in live televised debates on Sunday December 27 and Saturday January 2, less than two weeks before voting day.
While such encounters have been regular occurrences since direct presidential elections started in 1996, this time, weeks of acrimony about which media should be given the opportunity to broadcast the debates seemed for a while to derail the tradition. Tsai favored one television station while the KMT supported a bid by a larger combination of media groups. The stalemate ended when all the competitors joined forces.
The vice-presidential candidates, former Labor Minister Jennifer Wang, former Health Minister Chen Chien-jen and Minkuotang Chairwoman Hsu Hsin-ying will come first in one debate of their own, on Saturday December 26.
While two of them served in government and one used to be a KMT lawmaker, they still have an image that shows are relative political novices. The potentially negative element for the debates is that they might not have a lot of government experience outside their original domain, and could therefore project a rather poor level of understanding of key issues such as the economy or relations with China.
The KMT chose Wang for her image as a women’s rights and labor rights campaigner, an identity more often associated with the DPP. That positive element was soon obscured though by the fact that she had bought several apartments targeted at low-income military families and resold them for a profit. Pointing out that nothing of this was illegal, donating the profits to charity and moving out of her low-rent apartment, with her husband resigning from his Judicial Yuan job, could not mend the damage.
The issue, if brought up by her rivals or by reporters, is certain to dominate the debate, even though the candidates would be well advised to focus on policies, even if it’s only on the labor and health issues they are most familiar with.
The main presidential campaign has been even more affected by mudslinging and various allegations of impropriety than the vice-presidential race.
In a kind of reprisal for the allegations of real estate speculation against Wang, KMT politicians launched a volley of daily news conferences accusing Tsai of various examples of land speculation. It didn’t help much that the opposition leader pointed out that not only were the accusations false, but many of the details mentioned by the KMT were completely wrong.
The issue has remained on or near the frontpages of the newspapers, with almost daily accusations. Nobody was surprised when center stage on the KMT side was taken by Chiu Yi, the former lawmaker who has somewhat of a reputation for throwing grandiose accusations around. After losing his seat in a previous election and after the storm surrounding former President Chen Shui-bian died down, Chiu vanished from the radar for a while, but the latest presidential campaign had given him a chance to reemerge in full view.
Another key player in the allegations against the DPP candidate is Alex Tsai, who managed the campaign of last year’s losing Taipei City mayoral candidate Sean Lien, not by coincidence also marked by sharp allegations against the other camp ranging from the trade in human organs to fake eavesdropping and embezzlement.
Both sides in the latest round of land speculation stories have taken recourse to the judiciary, but it is already certain that such a process will do little to settle matters. Prosecutors will first question the various sides involved before deciding whether or not to file charges. Should there be charges, it will be up to the district-level court to handle the issue before reaching a verdict. As each side realizes, there is no hope whatsoever that this ruling will arrive before election day. It is also highly likely that nobody will be found guilty, as has happened before in many election-related defamation cases.
The money-centered allegations coming from the KMT were also met by a boomerang effect, with the DPP reminding voters that it is the ruling party which should be paying more attention to a more long-term problem of Taiwan’s democracy, namely the existence of illegally held assets. The opposition accused Chu of being in the process of selling some of those assets with two aims, on the one hand raising funds for the campaign, and on the other hand avoiding legal action once a new government takes office next May 20. DPP leaders also focused on the person of Chu’s father-in-law, prominent former KMT lawmaker Kao Yu-jen, who they accused of questionable business dealings and links with China.
The exchanges have not died down yet ahead of the debates, leading to fears that the rumors and accusations will take center stage and could even receive a bigger impetus.
While the media and part of the public would certainly enjoy more juicy exchanges about money and scandals, it should be the duty of the candidates to focus on their policies, on what they can do better than their rivals to pull Taiwan’s economy out of a slump, on how to bring more fairness and openness into the judiciary and the education system, on how to defend the country and its image globally.
The public wants answers about the widening gap between rich and poor, unaffordable housing, stalling economic growth, and overdependence on the troublesome Chinese economy and its communist masters.
The candidate who comes up with the best answers to those questions is likely to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese voters and to leave a lasting impression on January 16.