Taiwan Midterm Polls a Toss-Up

On Nov. 29, Taiwan’s 18 million voters will go to the polls for local elections, with pollsters and bookmakers differing on who’s in the lead and, as always, with the possibility that an unforeseen occurrence – such as a shooting or some other black swan event – will swing the polls.

The races in the major cities, particularly Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung, are important because victories would provide major momentum for the 2016 Presidential election, when the deeply unpopular Ma Ying-jeou of the China-friendly Kuomintang must step down because of term limits.

Shootings twice in recent elections have affected the outcome. In 2010, Sean Lien, now the KMT candidate for mayor of Taipei, was shot in the face by a gangster while campaigning for an ally, mobilizing the KMT. In 2004, the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party’s now-disgraced President Chen Shui-bian and his Vice President Annette Lu were injured in a shooting on the last day of their successful re-election campaign. The shooting, with an extremely low-caliber weapon, is widely believed to have been staged to gain sympathy and prevent voting by pro-KMT military and police, who were put on emergency standby.

Although fewer than two weeks are left before the elections, pollsters see the opposition DPP in the lead, while the bookies are betting on a slight lead for the KMT, at least in the most important race, for Taipei mayor. A victory would give the winning faction two years to govern the country’s most important city and prepare for national elections in 2016.

The surgeon-turned-politician Ko Wen-je, who is not a party member but was nominated by the DPP, is battling Sean Lien, the son of former Vice President Lien Chan. Sean Lien is a wealthy KMT party princeling who has been irritating the lower income brackets by residing in Taiwan’s most expensive apartment complex and wearing Armani to a televised election debate.

“What Dr. Ko and the DPP fear the most now is an unexpected incident on the home stretch,” said Chen In-Chin, a professor at the National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government. “Before the last multiple local elections in 2010, the DPP was also looking good in the opinion polls, but then Sean Lien was shot, so that the party then won New Taipei and Taipei.”

Chen alleged that shortly before the presidential elections in 2012, “the US and China made a secret deal” in which a former US official unexpectedly endorsed the KMT’s China-friendly stance, causing the KMT to win even though things looked very shaky for them in the opinion polls.

“The nearer the election date draws, the more likely it becomes that there will be interference by a dark power because the opponent has no time left to adjust his tactics,” Chen warned.

Another joker in the deck is the 100,000 Taiwanese businessmen and their families in China who may return to vote, mostly for Lien, which was probably not factored into the opinion polls, said John F Copper, a Taiwan analyst and professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Behind the scenes, Taiwan’s China-based business associations are busily arranging flights for tens of thousands of KMT-loving expats and reportedly are also paying and even finding temporary job replacements for them.

Copper added that polls over the years have often been manipulated “almost always to say the candidate the pollster favored would win.” By contrast, he added, gamblers’ odds are accurate because the individual has his money at stake and therefore gives it careful consideration “and cannot lie about who he is going to vote for as is a factor impacting opinion polls.”

Unsurprisingly, the KMT’s Lien has been getting lots of support not only from his own party but also from the KMT-run city and central governments, for example in the form of the timely completion of the important Songshan Line subway line, which was originally scheduled to open last year but then was quite miraculously held up by the discovery of a Qing Dynasty-period archeological site. Another such example was the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ doomsday warning that the newly announced China-South Korea free trade agreement would hurt 900,000 Taiwanese blue-collar jobs despite the pact’s details, such as tariff reduction roadmaps and rules of origins, having yet to be made available by China and Korea. The warning fits snuggly with the KMT government’s claim that the DPP’s anti-China stance impedes Taiwan’s own trade negotiations with China, the island’s largest export destination.

That said, if during the electoral countdown things stay hazy until the very last moment – and possibly until another shooting, they will turn predictable in case the pollsters win over the bookmakers. If, as the opinion polls say, Lien loses with a relatively small margin of around 50,000 votes to Ko, the Lien camp can be expected to shift the blame to the president, Chen said. “Recent political talk shows have been packed with prominent KMT figures, whose statements rather unexpectedly indicate just that. And once Taipei is lost, party chairman Ma will be so weak that the powerful Lien camp will try to position Sean Lien as the KMT’s presidential candidate in 2016.”

That was roughly how things went for Ma’s presidential predecessor, the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian, who lost his Taipei mayor job in 1998 only to move into the Presidential Office two years later, Chen said. The former president was indicted for bribery on leaving office and is now serving a 19-year sentence in Taipei Prison, reduced from a life sentence.