Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Closing the gap

Fear-mongering on the campaign trail

Taiwan Election Notebook, March 17
Far Eastern Economic Review

After a long buildup, Taiwan’s presidential race is finally heating up.

For weeks the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou has been far ahead of rival Frank Hsieh in media polls, in what looked like a highly lopsided race. Now, with one week to go before the election, it appears Hsieh is catching up.

Two Taiwanese media friends of mine said Hsieh’s ads and negative campaign were making a difference. Hsieh’s camp appears to have found a chink in Ma’s armor, by hammering away at what it calls Ma’s “one China market” policy. The proposal, long championed by Ma’s running mate Vincent Siew, would create a cross-Strait common market, binding the two sides’ economies closer together in a trade pact.

But Hsieh’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party is using the “one China market” theme to raise fears of Chinese competition. Namely, he’s raising the specter of a flood of Chinese agricultural imports and Chinese competition for jobs. The scare tactics seem to be having an effect–one of my media friends said she was shocked to overhear two Taipei roadworkers discussing the “one China market” as she passed by.

Meanwhile, Ma’s camp has been distracted by the fallout from an incident last Wednesday night. Four KMT lawmakers barged into Hsieh’s campaign headquarters with the finance minister in tow, accusing Hsieh of getting a sweetheart deal on his office rent. The scene spiraled out of control as scores of outraged Hsieh supporters protested, had shoving matches with police and smashed a police car outside Hsieh’s campaign office.

For the last two days, the KMT legislators have been apologizing for sparking the incident; Ma has apologized to the public on behalf of his party.

The Hsieh camp has pounced on this as well. It’s cast the KMT lawmakers’ barge-in as a taste of what’s in store if the KMT controlled both the legislature (where it now has a large majority, as of January) and the presidency. The subtext: voting for Ma would give the KMT so much power it would be akin to a return to the bad old days of KMT authoritarian rule.

In short, Hsieh’s campaign has seized on fear-mongering in a last-ditch bid to come back. That’s a time-honored DPP tool that’s especially potent when combined with positive emotional appeals to Taiwan-first patriotism.

The question, of course, is will it work? The March 22 vote has been hyped as one in which economic concerns may finally trump Taiwan identity. Ma’s promise of more economic engagement with China holds broad appeal–indeed, Hsieh’s platform is actual quite similar in substance (more cross-Strait flights; more Chinese tourists allowed in Taiwan; a relaxation of cross-Strait investment going both ways).

But now, Hsieh is cleverly trying to turn Ma’s strength (a vision of economic openness) into a weakness. The line of attack is straight from the protectionist playbook familiar in many other democracies. Most Taiwanese think more economic openness would boost incomes and livelihoods; but now Hsieh wants them to believe that too much openness–which Ma would promote–could actually have the opposite effect.

There’s no way to know what impact all this is having. The TV media reported last Tuesday a DPP poll showing Ma at 45.8% and Hsieh at 39.7%, but the Hsieh campaign would not confirm that.

In an email to me, it noted only that it’s illegal to release polls numbers in the 10 days before election day.

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