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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.

Published inInternational PoliticsTaiwan 2012

5 Comments

  1. Regarding paragraph 3, don’t forget: The documents used by the KMT to accuse Tsai Ing-wen in the Yu Chang thing “appear to” have been altered. Does that “appear to support” the Ma government’s accusations?

    If evidence that the ruling party is using its intelligence agencies to spy on opposition candidates is brought out, is it unimportant? Should the opposition just STFU about it? Are the DPP and their supporters actually “irrational,” “paranoid,” and “prone to conspiracy theories”? Blaming the DPP for that impression is the same as blaming them for “provoking” Beijing when in the real world it’s Beijing that uses the fabricated claim of “being provoked” to get what it wants.

    Have the people abroad who have such ideas about pan-greens ever taken a peek at the KMT’s “Bulletgate” accusations or the so-called “319 Truth Commission”? Check out an anti-DPP “conspiracy theory” (letter #1) and a pro-sanity counterargument (letter #2) here.

    Now, policies are pretty damn important (and that’s an understatement), but I’ve seen multiple Taipei Times articles that were specifically about Tsai’s policies, and there have also been multiple editorials complaining that we’re not hearing enough about candidates’ policies. Were those editorials referring to just one particular candidate? If so, why not be more direct?

    And can you really say that Tsai hasn’t been discussing her policies?

    As far as “moving forward as a developing democracy” goes, Tsai has indeed been trying to appeal to blue supporters, especially with her idea of developing a “Taiwan consensus.” Does this not count for anything? Do evidence-based accusations bear the same “value” as the incessant groundless smears coming from people like the KMT’s Chiu Yi? Are the two main parties really equally to blame, as pieces like this and those editorials about “policies” often make it appear?

  2. The KMT’s strategy has been to insulate itself from the effects of its behavior by constantly accusing the DPP of doing the same thing. It’s a truism that you can determine what the KMT is doing merely by noting what it is accusing the DPP of…..

  3. J. Michael Cole J. Michael Cole

    @TM: My piece isn’t about whether the accusations are true or not, nor does it attempt to set moral equivalence in how the DPP and the KMT have advanced their allegations. I think the allegations of espionage against the DPP and TSU candidates are extremely serious, and in my view, such developments *should* have an impact on voting decision. But based on what I’ve seen — and this is the main subject of my article, if you read it closely — this isn’t happening.

    As for the campaign platforms: I’ve seen lots of promises on all sides, but it’s all pretty vague, and usually when we reporters asked for specifics, we’d get nothing in return, whether in press conference settings or even in private conversations. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard visiting academics sharing their frustrations on this very topic after meeting the top people within the two main camps.

    I fully agree with you that Tsai’s “Taiwan consensus” represents an effort to unite rather than divide, and I’m not pinning the backtracking on the DPP. All I’m saying, and seeing, is that the scandals have reinforced the divide.

  4. TaiwanTeacher TaiwanTeacher

    After taking note of the 3 well-recognized online journalists who are posting here, I felt it necessary to say, “Hello from Hualien Taiwan.” This is good reading, and I look forward to following more of your posts as the election approaches. Thanks.

  5. @ J.Michael Cole

    I do have the same feeling as Tim’s when reading your article.

    Also, you said,【My piece isn’t about whether the accusations are true or not, nor does it attempt to set moral equivalence in how the DPP and the KMT have advanced their allegations. I think the allegations of espionage against the DPP and TSU candidates are extremely serious, and in my view, such developments *should* have an impact on voting decision. But based on what I’ve seen — and this is the main subject of my article, if you read it closely — this isn’t happening.】

    If that’s the main focus, then, when a government forged documents to frame opponent of the ruling party, during a campaign or not, it IS a serious matter that should have been reflected in the voting decision, but it’s not. Which means that the “forgery” part could have played an important role for your arguments.

    There was a similar case in Japan. The guy who forged the document — along with his bosses two levels up — were fired. The guy was sent to jail. But in Taiwan, the one who forged the docs is still in the position, and people don’t seem to worry that it’s Ma’s government that did it.

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