Solders perform a flag-raising ceremony at Liberty Square in Taipei, Taiwan, 31 December 2019. EPA/DAVID CHANG

Opinion – New characteristics of Taiwan’s presidential elections

The ongoing presidential election campaign in Taiwan is characterized by a fierce debate over an anti-infiltration bill, the biased nature of many media organizations and commentators, the emergence of betting syndicates, the blackening of the image of candidates especially Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, and the strong resistance of many Taiwan people to the “one country, two systems” formula.
The 2020 presidential election campaign in Taiwan is entering the final stage. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) pushes forward an anti-infiltration bill in the Legislative Assembly, arguing that those Taiwan people who are politically lured by the mainland and who receive money from mainland China would violate the law if they lobby Taiwan authorities electorally and politically. This bill has sparked a fierce debate in Taiwan over the content, scope, and timing of the bill. Pro-reunification candidates, like Han Kuo-yu of the KMT and James Soong of the People First Party (PFP), have criticized the bill as too broad and covering not only all Taiwan businesspeople and students who work and study in the mainland, but also other ordinary people, like farmers who interact with the mainland Chinese.
The DPP legislators argues that the bill must be debated and passed before the presidential election, while the KMT and PFP assert that the bill constitutes a conspiracy of the DPP to create an atmosphere of fear parallel to McCarthyism in the United States. The controversial nature of the bill has already deeply divided the society of Taiwan. Voters will likely express their views toward the bill in the upcoming presidential election, reflecting the political acceptability of the anti-infiltration bill to the members of the public.
Taiwan’s president election is also marked by a very biased nature of many newspapers and television programs. Many media organizations appear to be neutral, but they side with some candidates and political parties. Han of the KMT singled out three media organizations for their biased coverage. Objectively speaking, many media commentators have political prejudices and fail to present objective views in many television programs on the election campaigns. The DPP has appeared to make significant inroads in influencing some media organizations, editors, and commentators, shifting the entire campaign to target at the weaknesses of Han Kuo-yu.
Because many media organizations and commentators in Taiwan are politically biased, the accuracy of many opinion polls on the popularity of candidates has been seriously questioned. Many polls have shown a widening gap between Tsai of the DPP and Han of the KMT, with the latter trailing behind. Yet, it is unknown whether some of the polls were falsified by political supporters in order to taint the image of the opposing candidates.
Han has been suffering from a continuous media bombardment of his so-called “weaknesses,” including his “refusal to resign” from the mayoral position and his decision of taking leave in order to participate in the presidential election.  Hundreds of thousands of DPP supporters launched a petition to try impeaching him as the mayor of Kaohsiung. Regardless of Han’s chance of victory, his political future will likely be an uphill battle in the midst of media misinformation and vicious political attacks.
Nor did the three presidential debates focus on concrete policy issues. The three debates were in general marked by personal attacks. Han accused the DPP of internal factionalism, and he said the New Tide, a faction within the DPP, usurps the power of President Tsai. Han’s accusation has triggered a fierce debate in the final two weeks of the election campaign.
The way in which Han has been treated by the media has raised the issue of media ethics, which has not been really explored and assessed critically in the Taiwan society. Interestingly, the DPP presidential incumbent, Tsai Ing-wen, appears to be curiously and relatively free from media criticisms, although some people questioned the authenticity of her doctoral degree.
The emergence of betting syndicates in the 2020 presidential election campaign is not a new phenomenon. Critics of these betting syndicates claim that many of them originated from some Taiwan businesspeople who have become active in travelling between Taiwan and the mainland, bringing into Taiwan a huge amount of Renminbi, and then allowing members of the syndicates to transfer the Renminbi into Taiwan dollars and to engage in extensive betting.
Perhaps the existence of these syndicates was exactly the reason why the DPP wishes to use the anti-infiltration bill to deter the mainland money from penetrating into Taiwan’s electoral betting. Yet, even if electoral betting persists in Taiwan, it is doubtful whether it can really shape the election outcome in a significant manner. After all, voters in Taiwan are relatively mature and politically sophisticated. Many of them may not be easily swayed by electoral bribery and betting.
The final feature of Taiwan’s presidential election is the resistance of many people, and the DPP candidate Tsai, to the “one country, two systems.” The Hong Kong protests have provided a political lesson for Taiwan in the eyes of many DPP and even KMT supporters. Tsai of the DPP has openly rejected the “one country, two systems” model. Han of the KMT originally shied away from tackling the issue, but he has recently been forced by the changing electoral popularity to assert that he also does not accept the Hong Kong formula. It is only James Soong who explicitly calls for the need to have healthy interactions between Taiwan and mainland China.
The pro-DPP supporters and anti-Han citizens in Kaohsiung even use the slogan “restoring Kaohsiung” to launch a movement impeaching Han Kuo-yu. The anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong have already provided significant ammunition to the DPP, forced Han of the KMT to firstly evade but eventually address the issue of “one country, two systems,” and stimulated many Taiwan people to reject the Hong Kong model of integration with mainland China.
Under the circumstances in which the DPP has become the beneficiary of the Hong Kong protests and in view of the fact that many Taiwan people are rejecting the “one country, two systems,” the advisers of President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will have to design a more imaginative, innovative, and yet feasible model that can appeal to Taiwan for firstly economic integration with Fujian and the Greater Bay Area and, secondly, a stage-by-stage process of political dialogue and integration with the PRC. The stronger the PRC policy line on Hong Kong, the stronger the separatist sentiment in Taiwan and the stronger the resistance of the Taiwanese to the “one country, two systems.” How to design a Taiwan model of integration with the PRC will certainly be a challenging and gigantic task to President Xi Jinping’s Taiwan think tanks.