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Taiwan’s Presidential and VP Contenders Give Final Campaign Push

With less than two weeks left until the Taiwanese presidential elections, campaigning (and partisan mud-slinging) has kicked into high gear. 

By Briano Hioe

January 4, 2024

In the final days before voting on January 13, Taiwan’s major political parties are holding their last large-scale campaign rallies  – and also increasingly leaning into partisan attacks on each other. 

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate William Lai has come under fire by the pan-Blue camp for what is framed as an illegal structure owned by his family, with claims that this was built in contravention of housing regulations. Lai had defended himself by stating that this was a structure inherited from his father, a miner who died when he was two, and that it is one of many residences lived in by miners who served as the backbone of Taiwan’s economic growth – but whose homes were often deemed illegal by the government and demolished. 

Lai’s father and grandfather were miners, though Lai himself is a doctor by training and was educated at the prestigious National Taiwan University. After the controversy, Lai promised to donate his home to serve as a museum for the history of miners in Taiwan, at one point crying on television when discussing his family history.

In response, the DPP has sought to criticize the pan-Blue candidates for the structures they own. Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Hou Yu-ih has been criticized over a dormitory for students at Chinese Culture University owned by his family, which has been framed by the DPP as bilking poor students with expensive rents in spite of Hou’s rhetoric to address the social issue of how housing has become unaffordable for young people. The DPP accuses the dorm of taking advantage of tax loopholes by dividing the building into 99 addresses. Hou initially defended the dorm as legal but has now promised to donate the structure for social housing. 

As for Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), he has been attacked over a parking lot for buses on farmland he jointly owns. As the parking lot violates regulations, Ko ordered the lot to be demolished, emphasizing he was not involved in the day-to-day management of the land. Yet this drew further criticism after construction materials were reportedly excavated, leading to allegations of illegal dumping. 

Apart from threatening to sue those who reported on the excavation of the construction materials and affirming that this was legal, Ko said the farmland was given to him by his family in the hopes of securing a financial future, breaking into tears during the sole presidential debate of the election season during these comments. Ironically, Ko’s tears came moments after Hou accused Lai of crocodile tears over his family home. 

Ko has now pledged to donate income from the parking lot to charity. 

Indeed, much of the mudslinging between the candidates and parties at present goes back to the presidential and vice presidential debate, which were preceded by three presidential policy platform presentations and one vice presidential policy platform presentation. These have fewer opportunities for direct exchanges between candidates, but they often serve as de facto debates. 

Much of the political back-and-forth was along expected lines when it came to domestic politics, with the KMT attacking the DPP over its anti-nuclear stance, opposition to capital punishment, and inability to address Taiwan’s economic woes. But, as is also to be expected, cross-strait issues loom large. 

The Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) – the controversial trade agreement formulated under the Ma Ying-jeou administration (2008-2016) that led to the outbreak of the 2014 Sunflower Movement – is one significant source of contention. The bill would allow for Chinese investment in Taiwan’s service sector industry, but led to concerns that this would have a significant impact on political freedoms in Taiwan.

The Sunflower Movement to protest the CSSTA was perhaps Taiwan’s largest social movement in modern history and catapulted a generation of young political figures into public life. Though many post-Sunflower politicians were originally independents or ran as members of third parties, many are running as DPP candidates in the current election cycle. 

At present, the KMT and TPP support reviving the CSSTA. For Ko, this required some political backpedaling because he originally opposed the agreement. Ko has justified the flip-flop by saying he was not against the CSSTA but only opposed the way that the KMT circumvented committee review to pass the bill. Given the massive popular protests against the CSSTA in 2014, it is not surprising that the DPP would hone in on the issue to criticize the KMT and TPP.  

The KMT has reiterated during the debates that it is committed to the 1992 Consensus, but claims to be opposed to both “one country, two systems” as well as Taiwanese independence. By contrast, the KMT accuses the DPP of being ideologically dead set on independence even when this endangers Taiwan. The KMT has denied that the 1992 Consensus is the same as “one country, two systems” and tried to accuse William Lai of hoping to rid Taiwan of the Republic of China constitution. 

With increasing backlash against the 1992 Consensus – so much that successive KMT chairs Eric Chu and Johnny Chiang even floated the idea of jettisoning it – it may not be surprising that the DPP has honed in on this as a point of weakness. In comments to the media after her New Year’s address, President Tsai Ing-wen criticized the KMT for still attempting to entrap Taiwan in the 1992 Consensus. 

Another issue of contention is a proposal by the KMT and TPP to change Taiwan to a cabinet-style system. The idea was introduced late into the election by Ko Wen-je in the process of his party’s failed negotiations over a joint presidential ticket with the KMT. The DPP has criticized this idea as ill-thought-out, since the cabinet-style system of some countries means that there are not direct presidential elections but only voting for parties. The DPP has also pointed to the stiff barriers needed for a constitutional change. 

Although the KMT likely only signed onto the proposal in order to raise the chances of a successful alliance with the TPP, the KMT has defended the idea as aimed at allowing for coalition governance. Indeed, in the debates, both the KMT and TPP have kept open the room for cooperation. 

The vice presidential debates, too, are worth noting. For one, TPP vice presidential candidate Cynthia Wu made headlines numerous times for gaffes and vocal stumbles. Born in the United States and mostly educated in English-language environments, Wu has on many occasions shown poor Mandarin public speaking ability, resulting in incidents of responding to the wrong question, awkward pauses, and strange pronouncements such as extolling whiskey brand Johnny Walker or suggesting that the vice presidential candidates get barbecue together. 

Meanwhile, KMT vice presidential candidate Jaw Shaw-kong has increasingly come to shape the tone of the KMT’s campaign. Although he was only announced as Hou’s vice presidential candidate after talks with the TPP fell apart, Jaw’s presence in the Hou campaign has been a major boost. Jaw is known for his strident ideologically hardline views, and his presence on the ticket has made the Hou campaign more amenable to party hardliners. Jaw’s political views are such that he had to pledge not to advocate for unification once announced as the KMT’s vice presidential pick. 

Apart from that, Jaw is a media personality by training, and his talent at publicity has shown in the short time he has been Hou’s vice presidential pick. During the debate, Jaw made a number of incendiary claims. He accused Hsiao Bi-khim of the DPP and Wu of being “Americans” who did not have Taiwan’s true interests in mind. He also asserted that the DPP had eradicated all media that opposed it, claiming that 80 percent of Taiwanese media now were DPP mouthpieces. 

Jaw alleged that a story about the Taiwanese band Mayday experiencing Chinese pressure as retaliation for refusing to participate in United Front efforts (originally reported by CNN) was concocted by the DPP in collaboration with international media. He pledged to take action through the justice system against those who were responsible for the story if elected. Jaw suggested that this was a larger pattern, implying that the Wang Liqiang case and Chou Tzu-yu incident were stories concocted by the DPP in the preceding election cycle. 

Jaw also alleged that the DPP’s Transitional Justice Commission to seek redress from crimes committed during the White Terror, and its investigation into KMT party assets retained from property seizures of the authoritarian period, were used by the DPP to target opposing views, calling the DPP “dictatorial.” 

DPP vice presidential candidate Hsiao Bi-khim’s position on the ticket is increasingly seen as positioning her to be a potential eventual successor to Lai if he wins the presidency. As such, her debate performance received much attention. Hsiao framed herself in the debate as progressive and moderate, keeping closely to the positions of Tsai Ing-wen’s New Year’s address. Given past tensions between Lai and Tsai’s factions of the DPP, Hsiao’s presence on the DPP ticket was probably meant as an olive branch by the former faction to the latter, and Hsiao may be positioning herself as a leader in the mold of Tsai. 

The die is cast, then. Voting will take place on January 13 and results will be known the same day. 


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