Taiwan elections: ‘Slip of tongue’ does not dent Lai’s lead in final opinion polls

A poll by broadcaster TVBS on the evening of Jan 1 found 33 per cent of respondents said they would support the DPP team, with 30 per cent backing the Kuomintang, and 22 per cent the Taiwan People’s Party.

Ho Ai Li

Ho Ai Li

The Straits Times


Mr Lai and running mate Hsiao Bi-khim have held on to their lead after the presidential candidate debate on Dec 30. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

January 3, 2024

TAIPEI – With a blackout on opinion polls kicking in on Jan 3, 10 days before the Jan 13 Taiwan presidential elections, Mr Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is still leading despite a controversy over what he calls a “slip of the tongue”.

Mr Lai and running mate Hsiao Bi-khim have held on to their lead after the presidential candidate debate on Dec 30.

A poll by broadcaster TVBS on the evening of Jan 1 found 33 per cent of respondents said they would support the DPP team, with 30 per cent backing the Kuomintang (KMT), and 22 per cent the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

A survey released on Dec 31 by news site EToday also found the DPP duo in the lead with 35.4 per cent, over the KMT team’s 33.4 per cent and the TPP’s 22.1 per cent.

The DPP duo are also tops in debating performance, at least according to one survey.

In a TVBS survey right after the Dec 30 debate, about a third of respondents picked Mr Lai as the best performer in the debate, with a tie between KMT’s Mr Hou Yu-ih and TPP’s Dr Ko Wen-je in second place.

Ms Hsiao also acquitted herself well in a debate with the other vice-presidential contenders on Jan 1.

Four in 10 people in a Jan 1 TVBS poll after the debate named Ms Hsiao, former Taiwan representative to the United States, the best debater.

In comparison, 31 per cent picked KMT’s Mr Jaw Shaw-kong, and 7 per cent Ms Cynthia Wu of the TPP.

During the debate, Ms Hsiao remained calm even as Mr Jaw, a prominent media commentator, took a dig at her for saying in a 2003 interview that “we no longer identify ourselves with the Republic of China”.

In response, Ms Hsiao said the KMT has been turning boxes upside down to try to find damning evidence against the DPP, and has to resort to digging up things from more than 20 years ago.

She argued that she was talking about how people from Taiwan usually refer to themselves as Taiwanese when overseas, to distinguish themselves from citizens of the People’s Republic of China.

Ms Wu, who was often left out of the exchanges between Mr Jaw and Ms Hsiao, pleaded at one point for them to not ignore her presence: “Please do not treat me as oxygen.”

Notwithstanding his lead in the opinion polls, Mr Lai has come under attack for an eyebrow-raising remark about the Republic of China (ROC) – as Taiwan is officially known – during the debate.

Mr Lai made the comment during a round in which the candidates had to answer questions from the media, including their views on the ROC Constitution.

Mr Hou of the KMT had, in his past speeches, likened the ROC Constitution to a magic mountain protecting Taiwan (“hu guo shen shan”) in cross-strait relations.

Noting that the People’s Republic of China does not agree to the existence of the ROC, Mr Lai disagreed that the ROC Constitution is like a magic mountain.

“Today if we regard the ROC as a hu guo shen shan in cross-strait ties, is this going to foster peace or bring disaster to Taiwan?” he asked during the presidential candidate debate.

Mr Lai later said that his remark was a slip of the tongue, adding that he had meant to refer to the ROC Constitution instead.

But opponents said his comment was no slip but betrayed his belief in Taiwan independence.

The KMT’s Mr Hou accused Mr Lai of wanting to revise the ROC Constitution to rename the ROC the Republic of Taiwan instead.

China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since the KMT, or the ROC government, lost a civil war to the Chinese Communist Party and fled to Taiwan in 1949.

China sees Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunified with it, by force if necessary, but most Taiwanese prefer to maintain the status quo.

Cross-strait ties became tense after Ms Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning DPP became Taiwan president in 2016.

Ms Tsai, who was re-elected in 2020, is limited to two terms as president by the Constitution and has to step down in May.

Beijing does not trust Mr Lai – not only does he have a history of supporting Taiwan independence, but he has also publicly advocated for the democratisation of China, another sensitive issue, noted Dr Qi Dongtao of the East Asian Institute of Singapore.

Dr Kharis Templeman of Stanford University said cross-strait relations are always an important issue in presidential elections in Taiwan, but are affecting the campaign “a bit differently” this time.

He told ST: “The DPP is using the same pitch that they have had for several election cycles – that they are the party best equipped to defend Taiwan’s security and sovereignty.

“The problem for them is that after eight years of Tsai Ing-wen, the cross-strait environment has got a lot more tense.”

This is especially the case after the visit of then US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2022, which angered Beijing and led to stepped-up Chinese military drills around the island.

Said Dr Templeman: “A vote for Lai is a vote for present trends to continue. And I think a lot of Taiwan voters might be worried enough this time to consider voting for the KMT to get an improvement in the cross-strait environment.”

But Dr Qi believes the DPP’s Mr Lai is the favourite to win.

While no political party in Taiwan has won more than two presidential elections in a row since the introduction of direct presidential elections in 1996, he believed the DPP is likely to do so this time.

He noted an absence of social protests this time, in the vein of the red-shirt protestors against then President Chen Shui-bian’s corruption in 2008 and the Sunflower student movement in 2016, that led to a change of ruling party at the ballot box.

Dr Templeman is more sanguine about the chances of the KMT.

“I think Lai still has the edge in this race and should be considered the favourite, but it is likely to be a close election, and it’s still quite plausible the KMT could pull (off) the upset,” he said.

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