January 3, 2024
TAIPEI – Tears made an appearance at one point in Taiwan’s only presidential debate this election season, as all three candidates traded barbs in their highly anticipated clash that was televised live on Dec 30.
But none of the candidates delivered the knockout punch that would move the needle in their direction in the January election, analysts said.
“None of the candidates said anything that was particularly new, so what they did was merely solidify the support among their existing base of supporters,” said Associate Professor Chen Shih-min, an electoral politics expert at National Taiwan University.
“The candidates just kept repeating the same arguments that we’ve heard many times before, so the debate is not likely to change anyone’s minds about who they are going to vote for.”
In just two weeks on Jan 13, Taiwan heads to the polls to elect its next president, a pivotal vote that will shape Taipei’s relations with Beijing, which claims sovereignty over the island.
According to a Dec 30 survey by leading pollster My Formosa, Mr Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) maintained his position as the front runner with 39.6 per cent of the support.
Meanwhile, Mr Hou Yu-ih of the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) had 28.5 per cent, while Dr Ko Wen-je of the smaller Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) trailed with 18.9 per cent.
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In the debate lasting 2½ hours, each of the three candidates took turns delivering statements before taking questions from selected media outlets and then cross-examining one another.
They did not hold back their criticisms.
Mr Lai, for instance, opened the debate by describing Mr Hou’s policies as those of a “previous era”, while he said Dr Ko “has opinions but no actions”.
Mr Lai, who is also Taiwan’s current vice-president, added that some of Dr Ko’s proposed policies are already in place, and said: “I will treat (his) ‘copying and pasting’ as a compliment to the government.”
Meanwhile, Mr Hou went after Mr Lai for wanting to continue President Tsai Ing-wen’s foreign policy. “If her way is so good, then why did (Taiwan) lose nine diplomatic allies,” he said.
But it was Dr Ko, an unconventional and straight-talking politician, who grabbed the most attention for his fiery statements in the debate, said Prof Chen.
“Ko has been trailing by quite a lot in the polls for a while now, so it is no surprise that he had to be more aggressive and go on the offensive,” the political scientist said.
For instance, Dr Ko attacked Mr Lai for allegedly making illegal expansions on a childhood home and then trying to cover it up with tall tales.
“I can no longer see Lai Ching-te, he has drowned in lies,” Dr Ko said.
In fact, controversies over properties associated with the three candidates took up significant chunks of the debate, despite all of them agreeing that the topic should not shift the focus away from bigger issues.
Mr Hou defended a family-owned student dormitory as a legal structure, while Dr Ko addressed questions surrounding a plot of land he co-owns in Hsinchu, which opponents said had been turned into a carpark despite it being designated for farming.
At this juncture, Dr Ko became overcome with emotion.
“My father bought that land for me… and his greatest wish for me was to return to Hsinchu and become the chief of a Hsinchu hospital,” he started before choking up with tears.
“But due to life’s encounters, I have not been able to meet his expectations,” he said.
As expected, however, the debate focused most heavily on cross-strait issues.
Both opposition candidates went after Mr Lai for his past remarks as a “pragmatic worker of Taiwanese independence”, noting that such comments would undermine Taiwan’s security. Beijing views de jure independence of the island as a red line.
In response, Mr Lai said: “On so-called Taiwan independence, Taiwan’s basic position is that Taiwan’s sovereignty and independence belong to its 23 million people, not the People’s Republic of China.”
Referring to Taiwan’s official name, he added: “The Republic of China and People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other – this is the definition of Taiwan independence.”
Meanwhile, Dr Ko noted the need to find a balance between being confrontational and cooperative with China.
“The DPP always takes a very confrontational attitude, while the KMT is always thinking about cooperation with China,” he said.
Mr Hou repeated his opposition to Taiwan independence as well as China’s proposed “one country, two systems” plan to reunify with the island.
Prof Chen noted that Mr Hou targeted Mr Lai in many of his remarks but rarely Dr Ko, which did not go unnoticed by the latter.
“Hou didn’t ask me a question, so he is helping me to take down (Mr Lai),” Dr Ko said to chuckles from the audience.
Prof Chen said: “Hou is trying his best to make Ko and the TPP appear irrelevant in this election, so that those who want to take down the DPP will think their best shot at doing that is a vote for the KMT.”