Global Politics

Taiwan Set for Presidential Elections

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Ma Ying-jeou, seen here waving to supporters during a visit to UC Berkeley in March 2006. (Photo: Jiang/Wikipedia)

The president is well-spoken, well-educated; studied law at Harvard; came to office with a big majority, who had high hopes he'd turn things around. But support has slipped, and complaints have been grown about how he hasn't done enough to help the economy in general, and ordinary people in particular.

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President Obama, you can relax. This story isn't about you. It's about Taiwan's incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou. He's up for re-election on Saturday, and the race is too close to call.

Ma defended his record this week.

"I have actually accomplished a lot in the last four years" — for instance, calmed down tensions with China, opened up direct flights, shipping and postal services, signed new trade agreements, created jobs, lowered inflation, boosted economic growth and worked to clean up corruption. So Ma's asking for another term.

"In the first four years, I worked to reorient Taiwan back on the right track," he said. "I think I have largely accomplished what I set out to do."

It seems many Taiwanese think differently. The challenger, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party or DPP, has almost as much support as Ma, the incumbent.

Tsai's spokeswoman, Hsiao Bi-Khim, said it's about the economy.

"We have been critical of the way that benefits have not been adequately distributed in our society over the past few years," Hsiao said. "For example, we have experienced a GDP growth rate. However, we believe that the wealth created, the growth created, is concentrated only among a few select businesses or interest groups."

"We have to give them a little room. For me, I think even four years is not enough," said Alice Chen.

Chen's talking about both Ma Ying-jeou and Barack Obama. Chen lives in Seattle and has dual Taiwanese and US citizenship, so she'll be voting in two presidential elections this year.

"Obama's first term, I didn't vote for him. I voted for more experienced, McCain," Chen said. "But since Obama's point is take care of everyone, everyone should have health insurance, he tried. Then I realized, I have to support him, because I like his policy."

Same with Ma Ying-jeou, she said. Her brother, Keenan Chang, who lives in Taiwan, strongly agrees.

"After Ma Ying-jeou took power, we don't worry about a war with China.

We don't want war, we want peace," Chang said.

He added that Taiwan's last president, Chen Shui-bian, from the DPP, played an unnecessary and dangerous game of brinksmanship with China, which hurt Taiwan's economy. He worries about what another DPP president might do.

But many DPP supporters worry that President Ma may give Mainland China too much, and erode Taiwan's autonomy in the process.

Still, on the way to a rally for President Ma, I bump into a DPP supporter.

"Before, I never attend the KMT rally," said the man, referring to Ma's party. "So I want to see how many people, and what are the elements."

After that, he said, he planned to move on to see his preferred candidate — Tsai Ing-wen. The man told me that he hoped for a woman president.

"I think woman is better," he said. He also thinks President Ma is too beholden to elites and special interests, even if he does give Ma credit for working out a more constructive relationship with China.

At the rally, a packed crowd gives Ma credit for that and more.

"I have confidence in Ma. He's been doing very well over the last four years, and he's got a big horizon," said Karen Zuo, another Taiwanese-American who's returned to vote.

Zuo's father was in Chiang Kai-shek's army, and went with him to Taiwan in 1949.

For most of the time since, China's insistence that Taiwan is a province that must reunite with the Motherland has kept Taiwan on edge.

The past four years have been different — the demand hasn't gone away, but it's been muted. So, in this election, voters can afford to think more about domestic issues, and about Taiwan's future as Taiwan.

Whoever wins tomorrow, that's no small accomplishment.