Taiwan voters face tight election, but keep typical rowdiness in check

As Taiwan prepares to go to the polls on Saturday, almost three decades of democracy may have rubbed the shine off some of its novelty – and instability. 

Shengfa Lin/Reuters
Taiwan President and Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou is greeted by supporters during a campaign through the streets of the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung on Friday, one day before the presidential election to be held on Saturday.
Ashley Pon/Reuters
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen greets supporters on a truck during a campaign in Taipei on Friday, one day before the presidential election to be held on Saturday.

Today, as Taiwan prepared to go to the polls for tomorrow's ultra-tight presidential election, police kept a watchful eye on a handful of antigovernment protesters staked out in front of the ruling party’s cavernous 2012 campaign headquarters in anticipation of a news conference by the president. 

It past elections, it was common for angry street demonstrations to swell above 100,000 people ahead of votes in Taiwan, which was under authoritarian until the late 1980s.

But the 2012 campaign is calmer than those in the past, despite the tight race. After four presidential races and local elections somewhere on the island almost every year, the Taiwanese have gotten used to the democratic process.

“It's certainly more sedate than in previous years,” says Michael Turton, an American-born politics blogger based in central Taiwan. “We're in our third decade of real elections. They are normal, not novelties.”

Before the presidential race in 2004, a bullet grazed incumbent Chen Shui-bian, who went on to win. In 2010, a gunman shot and wounded the son of former-vice president Lien Chan at a city council campaign event near Taipei. Another man was killed.

But now the banners, the protest, and the news conference have become common features of Taiwan’s vibrant democracy. They can be seen all year, any year. And this week they were a mere blip on Taipei’s broader landscape of traffic snarls, lunch-hour lines at dumpling shacks, and folks running errands before the Lunar New Year holiday begins on Jan. 23.

Incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou and his main rival, Tsai Ing-wen, are the top two candidates. Ms. Tsai is backed by a party that is colder toward Taiwan’s longtime political rival China than Mr. Ma’s. Both are trying to outdo each other this year in their attention to Taiwan’s lower class. The economy has hit speed bumps since 2008 and faces an uncertain 2012. 

Rallies on Sunday afternoon for the two appeared to draw just hard-line supporters, who cheered on the opposition’s goal of Taiwanese independence from China and the incumbent’s eagerness to engage China. Beijing claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and insists that the two sides some day be reunified. Relations have improved since 2008 following a rack of new trade deals. 

But swing voters largely stayed home during Ms. Tsai’s street-shaking rock concert and Ma’s thundering speech. The swing contingent, estimated at 20 percent of Taiwan’s potential electorate of 18 million, encompasses first-time voters, undecided voters – and, like any democracy, people who can afford to just not care.

“The rallies have been pretty cold,” says Lin Chong-pin, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “It may be that the voters are becoming apathetic.”

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