Coming Home to Vote in Taiwan

As many as 250,000 people, unable to vote as absentees, are flying back from the Chinese mainland to pick the candidate of their choice in next Sunday’s presidential elections in Taiwan. Thousands more are coming from across the world in an election that in large measure will determine Taiwan’s relations with its giant neighbor across the Strait.

“I have come back from Guangdong to vote,” said Chen Bo-rung, a sales representative for a company called Guangzhou Sparkle Electronics in Chonghua City. “We cannot let Ma Ying-jeou win, he is too weak in a crisis. I will vote for Frank Hsieh.”

While Chen is a vehement backer of Frank Hsieh, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party candidate, there are equally vocal supporters of Ma, the standard-bearer for the Kuomintang.

Wu Li-hsiu, a flight attendant on the Eva Air flight from Hong Kong, said the returnees include Taiwanese from all over the world, not only the mainland. “They are coming from the U.S., Southeast Asia and even Europe,” she said. “We are still passionate about voting. I expect a turnout of over 80 per cent. Unfortunately, I will be on a plane to the US on Election Day, but my family members will vote – two for one candidate and two for the other.”

Opinion polls now put Ma comfortably ahead by at least 10 percentage points, but most people expect a close result, as happened during the last two elections in 2000 and 2004.

Since this was the last weekend before the poll, campaigning is intense as each party organizes street demonstrations and mass rallies in a final effort to gather votes. These activities are broadcast in minute detail by seven television new channels.

The mainland-based Taiwan Enterprise Association said that 150,000 people returned to vote in 2004. Everyone must go via Hong Kong, Macau, Cheju Island in Korea or another third country.

When asked in the mainland, business people often say they will vote for Ma because they dare not express their preference for a candidate despised by Beijing. But many have so-called blue skin and green bones, an allusion to party colors meaning they will vote for the DPP when they come home.

Taxi driver Chang Ping-kuo said that he would vote for Ma. “The main issue is the economy. During its eight years, the DPP has spent all its time on changing names and symbols, from China Post to Taiwan Post, from China Petrochemical to Taiwan Petrochemical, but what benefit does this bring to the common citizen? Unemployment has gone up and our relations with the mainland have deteriorated. The DPP will not negotiate with China so none of its leaders has been there during eight years.”

Chang set out from Taoyuan International Airport, which used to be Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, and drove into downtown Taipei, dominated by the city railway station. Around the roof of the station, in Chinese and English, hangs a green DPP banner: saying, “Raise your hand to support Taiwan’s entry into the United Nations.”

This refers to a referendum which President Chen Shui-bian has organized for the same day as the election.

“That is typical of Chen,” said Chang, pointing at the banner. “It is an enormous effort of time, energy and money but to no result. If we all vote yes, will we get into the UN? Of course not, it is more complicated than that. I will not vote on that referendum, nor will many people.”

The front pages of Taiwan newspapers on Saturday were dominated by pictures of burning vehicles and heavily armed soldiers on the streets of Lhasa in Tibet. While Taiwan does not support Tibetan independence, the images are a good issue for the DPP, showing how China uses tanks and soldiers to enforce its rule. Hsieh spoke of Tibet during his speeches on Saturday as an example of what happens to those who oppose Beijing’s rule.

Throughout the campaign, the DPP has portrayed Beijing as malicious and belligerent, with more than 1,300 missiles pointed at the island. The images from Lhasa play to this theme.

On the other hand, Ma is campaigning on a promise of warming relations with Beijing, offering direct air, shipping and postal links, a common market, recognition of mainland academic diplomas and tripling the number of daily tourists from 1,000 to 3,000 a day.

Yip Siu-chun, a Hong Kong student at Taipei Normal University, said that more of his classmates favour Ma than Hsieh. “The economy has declined during the eight years of DPP rule. Salaries have not increased in line with prices. People here compare Taiwan unfavorably with South Korea. Taiwan used to be the first among the four little dragons of Asia but is now trailing far behind. The new president must do something to stimulate the economy rapidly.

“Ma is the favorite,” he said.