Sunday, January 13, 2008

Fortunetellers busy as election nears

Mystics, psychics, feng-shui masters and a new "predictions market" are vying to call Taiwan's presidential election

By Jonathan Adams
International Herald Tribune, January 10, 2008

It's election season in Taiwan, which means the predictions are flying fast and furious.

The March 22 presidential vote - which follows legislative elections this Saturday - pits Ma Ying-jeou of the China-friendly Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, against Frank Hsieh of the traditionally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. The election, as so often here, is being cast by the island's news media as a high-stakes battle royale, packed with uncertainty, danger and dirty tricks from both parties.

Recent opinion polls are showing Ma ahead of his rival by 20 to 30 points. But publicly available polls in Taiwan have a credibility problem. Many are conducted by partisan media outlets and have proved unreliable.

"Don't look at the numbers right now," advised Liao Da-chi, a political science professor at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung.

Many Taiwanese aren't. Instead they're turning to divination and other quirky methods for insight into the weeks ahead. The Taiwan media have featured sensational rumors and predictions from fortunetellers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, even from a psychic based in New York. Meanwhile, what may be the first Chinese-language "prediction market," based in Taipei, will face a major test in whether it can call the election better than the polls.

Fortunetellers remain as popular here as ever, especially in times of personal or national uncertainty. According to the Taiwan Social Change Survey, the number of Taiwanese who believe in "ba zi" (eight characters), a popular method of predicting the future based on the time of one's birth, remained steady from 1994 through 2004 at almost 60 percent. The number believing in "zi wei dou shu," another type of Chinese astrology, rose slightly in that time, from 41 to 44 percent.

"This kind of mysticism has a long tradition in Chinese society," said Chiu Hei-yuan, a sociologist at National Taiwan University. "Our society may be modernized now, but those traditions are quite persistent."

Many well-educated Taiwanese regularly consult fortunetellers. So do some politicians, though few are willing to publicly admit it. When election time nears, they'll consult mystics, pray for divine help through a haze of incense smoke, or assess their electoral chances through "bua buei," the casting of two pieces of wood to learn the gods' response to a question, according to academics and political insiders.

One Kuomintang politician who faces a tight race in the legislative elections this Saturday recently visited a famous temple in southern Taiwan to bua buei about his prospects and received a favorable response, a party associate said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because was not authorized to discuss publicly his colleagues' soothsaying practices.

A fortuneteller and feng shui master based in Taipei, Tsai Shang-chi, said several legislators lost their re-election bids in 2004 after failing to heed his warnings about the inauspicious arrangements of their campaign offices.

Lee Jian-jun, author of the new book "Who Can Win the Presidential Election?", said he based his political predictions on analyses of the speech and body movements of Ma, Hsieh and other major candidates. He said he had personally advised Taiwanese politicians from both major parties, though he would not reveal any names.

Taiwanese politicians seem especially superstitious these days, he said. "Taiwan is in a state of confusion," he said in a telephone interview.

He predicted difficulties ahead for Ma, in part because the Kuomintang candidate throws his left leg too far forward when he walks.

The fortuneteller So Man Fung, based in Hong Kong, has also entered the game. Last year he predicted that Ma would survive a scandal over alleged misuse of his expense accounts as mayor of Taipei. (That proved accurate; last month Ma was cleared of all wrongdoing.)

But Lee Lichang, a sociologist at National Kaohsiung University of Applied Sciences, said fortunetellers had displayed just as much partisan bias as newspaper polls: fortunetellers from Hong Kong tend to lean toward Ma, he said, while fortunetellers in southern Taiwan tend to favor Hsieh.

Which could explain why some Taiwanese have looked farther afield for a reliable prognosticator.

This week, the news media focused on Elizabeth Fotinopoulos, a psychic from Huntington Station, New York, who is visiting Taiwan on a book-promotion tour ("Your Hidden Truth"). Her verdict: Ma's life is in danger, and Hsieh should also be careful about his health.

For all their willingness to comment on current politics, few fortunetellers seem willing to say outright who will win. That task falls to a less mystical source: a Chinese-language prediction market, set up in Taiwan in 2006.

Such markets have gained popularity in the United States and Europe, where they have been used to forecast everything from elections to soccer results to the severity of the winter flu season. They gained notoriety in 2003 when a public outcry led to the shutdown of a Pentagon-backed market for predicting terrorist attacks.

In the election market established by Taiwan's Center for Prediction Markets, participants register and receive a pot of 100,000 virtual points. They can then begin trading in "contracts," on whether a certain candidate will win the election, or on the candidate's final share of the vote.
The market now boasts a couple thousand traders from Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China and across the globe.

"In the U.S. it's becoming more and more a mainstream thing, but it's still a new concept in Asia," said Liu Chia-kai, president of Swarchy, a private company collaborating on the project.

The Taiwanese version already passed one test in December 2006. Then, markets for the Taipei and Kaohsiung mayoral elections beat publicly released opinion polls in predicting vote shares.

So how is the market calling the big election in March?

Ma's lead is more commanding than in the newspaper polls, with his "contract" stabilizing at $70 to $75 since early December. Hsieh's is trading under $30.

Still, there's plenty of time for the market - and the fortunetellers, feng shui masters and gods - to change their predictions.

Ko Shu-ling contributed reporting from Taipei.

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