Asia, World — March 17, 2012 at 10:44 am

Taipei Personalities

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Illustration by Ilana Schulder

As his first term approached its end, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang Party (KMT) was pitted against Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the first female presidential candidate in Taiwan. The January election, restoring incumbent Ma as president, captured international attention as many anticipated a resulting shift in the precarious relationship between Taiwan and China. With the two main party candidates maintaining distinctly different stances on cross-strait policy, the election was expected to decide the future of the nation’s trading policies, potentially altering the status quo set by the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and leading to a less-cooperative relationship with the Chinese government. The economic and political tensions between the Taiwanese and Chinese governments has been a significant issue in Asia.

Ma’s and Tsai’s election campaigns demonstrated the reliance of Taiwanese politicians on emotional appeals and how candidates frame the national identity. In contrast to political debate in Western democracies, the discourse of Taiwan’s presidential elections focuses less on the candidates’ competence and goals for domestic governance than on the their ability and vision for maintaining peaceful cross-strait relations. To persuade voters that their diplomatic strategies and propositions originate from the utmost patriotic intent, the two most recent presidential candidates incorporated various emotional appeals into their election campaigns.

This reliance upon emotional appeal is influenced by two factors. First, because of the population’s rigid division based on party loyalties, the campaign strategies of the two main political party candidates are shaped predominantly by the image and the history of the two parties. And, more important, presidential election campaigns are dictated largely by Taiwan’s identity crisis, marked by its unrecognized sovereignty in the international arena. International pressures restrain the patriotism exhibited by the Taiwanese politicians. The desires for independent nationhood and peace compose a conflicting national identity among many Taiwanese citizens. This conflict in national identity, along with international tension, greatly shaped the January election. Both candidates carefully presented their platforms on the economic relationship with China, using deliberate rhetoric and imagery to appeal to voters’ emotional senses.

Taiwan’s political culture has been shaped by many factors, including its complicated history of democratic transition, its rigid political demarcation within the population, and its oversaturation of media and broadcast outlets. The Republic of China, led by the KMT government, retreated to the island of Taiwan in 1949 after its defeat in the Chinese Civil War. The transition from a nation of immense territory to one of limited resources remains a painful chapter in the annals of Taiwanese memory. Still a young democracy (this year’s presidential election was only the nation’s fifth), the country has progressed from a one-party regime to a constitutional democracy in just twenty-three years; but the bloody transition still affects the way political campaigns are conducted today.

Taiwan did not allow free speech in print media until 1988, did not permit parties other than the KMT to legally assemble until 1989, and did not recognize the right for people to elect their own government until 1991. Though considered bloody and violent by many critics at the time, this gradual democratic transition established great pride among many Taiwanese citizens. According to the data released by the Central Election Commission, turnout for the 2012 election was 74.28 percent, demonstrating the importance to citizens of the nation’s democratic process. Tsai, in particular, built her political platform around this emphasis on democracy, stressing how the national identity of Taiwan is completely dependent upon its political structure. Insisting that people should have a say in formulating the relationship between China and Taiwan, she once proposed to have a direct vote on whether to alter the status quo of ECFA. Her party, the DPP, was formed through grassroots movements among the lower classes in the 1980s. Tsai’s political language and campaign methods were reminiscent of those used during the DPP’s struggle against the authoritarian KMT regime from the 1920-1960s.

On the other hand, as the founding political party of the Republic of China, the KMT has an image that is slightly more distant and elevated from the general public. The KMT went through a series of reforms in the past decades to correct its historically corrupt image from the Martial Law period. Since President Ma’s emergence as the mayor of Taipei, many critics have considered him to carry an image of incorruptibility as a new political figure of the KMT party. His stance on the national identity of Taiwan emphasized the commonality and possibility for cooperation between Taiwan and China, which he’s argued would bring about many advantageous developments to the nation.

As an incumbent, Ma focused his campaign on solidifying and underscoring his successes as president, while Tsai’s main objective was to point out the inadequacies and failures of the current government. While they approached the campaign from opposite sides of the table, their main objectives were similar: They both had to convince voters that their diplomatic and economic plans would most benefit Taiwan in both the short- and long-term. Ma promised peace and economic prosperity while Tsai emphasized democratic integrity and a forceful, independent national identity; yet, despite individual differences the two candidates presented their ideals by provoking emotional responses, such as fear of war against China or the desire for an independent nationhood. Even though Ma had the advantage of demonstrating the successes of his policies, he also carried the burden of explaining and justifying the slow growth in the nation’s economy that had been greatly impacted by the global recession.

Although both political platforms were strikingly similar on domestic issues, closer examination reveals differing opinions on national identity and cross-strait economic policy. They both referred to employment opportunity, societal equality, environmental preservation, education, and national security in their political statements, but these carefully formulated campaign platforms do not describe the true disparity between the two candidates.

The main difference in campaigns lay in the diction and imagery they chose when describing their attitudes toward national identity. Ma maintained that a cooperative economic framework with China through the ECFA would benefit the economic prosperity of the Taiwanese people and ensure peaceful relations with China. However, Tsai contended that the economic framework needed readjustments. Taiwan had relinquished too much sovereignty to the Chinese government, thereby undermining Taiwan’s dignity as an independent country. She argued that the economic framework in place had made Taiwan excessively dependent upon China and would endanger Taiwan’s economy in the long run.

There were fundamental differences in the ways campaign advertisements were used by the two candidates to demonstrate their particular stances on Taiwan’s identity and the nation’s priorities. Ma, in order to place emphasis upon existing successes, utilized statistics to highlight improvements in various industries in the preceding four years. He especially highlighted the high volume of Chinese tourists, which helped increase the market opportunity for small- and mid-size firms. Focused extensively upon economic improvements, his advertisements were widely criticized for being overly optimistic, simplistic, and insensitive to the flaws and imperfections of the existing conditions.

In contrast, Tsai’s advertisements focused more on emotions, asking rhetorical questions such as, “In the past four years, how have you been?” Implicit statements blaming the current administration for the economic downturn and unemployment problem were made through messages such as “Did your paycheck increase in the past four years?” These ads were meant as a symbolic call to action, encouraging citizens to stand up for their homeland. The usage of “we” in repetitive declaration of “We want justice,” and “We want happiness,” successfully captured the attention of many young voters. The contrast between logical statistics and emotional rhetoric created an interesting dichotomy, further exemplifying the two candidates’ attitudes towards national identity: one underlined the necessity of peace, and the focused underlined the necessity of independence.

Unquestionably, each campaign’s ultimate focus was upon the China-Taiwan relations. Their country lacking international recognition and support, most Taiwanese citizens – though aspiring to have an independent national identity – continue to seek and demand the maintenance of peace across the Taiwan Strait.

Moreover, as shown in the nationally broadcasted public debate, the candidates were split on the issue of the 1992 Consensus and the Taiwan Consensus. The 1992 Consensus, supported by Ma, is an agreement between the Chinese and KMT-led Taiwanese governments that they would maintain “One China [with] two names.” Tsai, on the other hand, promoted a new ideal of a “Taiwan Consensus” in which the Taiwanese people will have a direct vote to determine their relationship with China. Focusing on the idea that, in a true democracy, people should have a distinct voice, Tsai criticized the KMT for deciding the fate of the nation without seeking consensus from the people. However, Tsai received overwhelming criticism that her plan appeared unrealistic and even potentially dangerous.

The significance of emotionality in the election was undeniable. The two candidates successfully presented their political ideals through various forms of media, from the 24/7 cable television broadcast to interactive websites. During the few weeks before the election, nearly all the streets in Taiwan were lined with the Taiwan’s national flag. The atmosphere was passionate and exciting, with billboard advertisements and campaign trucks – blaring repetitive audio records – fillings the streets.

In this particular election, Ma faced a unique challenge: He needed to underscore the current administration’s success and progress while still appearing sympathetic toward people’s suffering in the economic recession. As an incumbent, Ma was an easy target on which to pin the recession, and it was particularly difficult for him to appeal to emotions when he had to highlight the progress that the nation had made in various areas without appearing to be insensitive toward issues such as unemployment – nonetheless, his attempt was clear and successful. Tsai, with a completely different objective and focus, based her campaign on the necessity of forming an independent national identity and maintaining an ideal democracy.

Taiwan’s 2012 presidential election was itself a great testament to the long, tortuous journey that the nation has traveled in pursuit of democracy. Having won the January election by 800,000 votes, President Ma now sits in the second term of his presidency. Under his leadership, the current status of the cross-strait relations will most likely persist under the same ECFA regulations. The election was considered a tremendous success by many international press organizations – the two candidates respected the democratic process, and both carried themselves in a dignified and respectable manner as the verdict unfolded on January 14th.

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