Campaigning in Taiwan
Of pigs and persimmons
For once, China is not the focus of an election campaign
Dec 3rd 2011 | TAICHUNG | from the print edition
TAIWAN’S president, Ma Ying-jeou, facing an unexpectedly tough battle for re-election in January, has been devoting unusual attention to the woes of the island’s persimmon farmers. Handling relations with China has often been the most bitterly contested issue in Taiwanese politics. But with cross-strait relations now much improved and worries about the island’s economy growing, Taiwan’s political focus has shifted. China too, though concerned that the relatively conciliatory Mr Ma might lose, appears preoccupied with affairs at home.
Despite this shift, Taiwanese politics has lost little of its rancour. In the past few days, Mr Ma and his party, the Kuomintang (KMT), have been squabbling bitterly with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its leader, Tsai Ing-wen, over the key question of persimmons. Mr Ma has accused the DPP of causing “terror” among persimmon farmers by saying in its campaign literature that the price of the fleshy, orange fruit had slumped. This, he said, had caused people to shun vendors selling the fruit at their actual, much higher, price. The DPP denied charges of being ill informed and heartless, but to push his point home, Mr Ma visited a wholesale fruit market in the Greater Taichung area of central Taiwan, where he pledged to buy five tonnes of persimmons for distribution to Taichung’s needy.
In the build-up to no less suspenseful presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, the two main parties engaged in more momentous struggles over the island’s identity, fuelled by threats from China. Both those elections were won by the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian. By the time of the elections in 2008, the DPP’s popularity had plunged and few doubted that Mr Ma would win (Mr Chen has since been jailed for corruption). But a simultaneous referendum in 2008, engineered by the departing Mr Chen on whether Taiwan should apply to join the UN, ensured more fierce debate about how to deal with China.
The DPP has now switched tactics. Ms Tsai, despite having served as the government’s top official responsible for China relations during Mr Chen’s presidency, has largely avoided pushing her party’s traditional line about the island’s separateness from China. Hsiao Bi-khim, a DPP spokeswoman, says one thing the party has learned is that cross-strait relations need to be handled through “consensus-building” instead of as a “divisive campaigning tool”. Ms Tsai has said she will not scrap a free-trade deal signed with China last year, despite her party’s formerly strong condemnation of it.
But China is likely to be anxious about Ms Tsai’s rejection of what is commonly referred to as the “1992 consensus”, which the KMT says was an understanding that the two sides would uphold the idea of “one China”, but agree to disagree about what this means. This consensus (though the DPP insists there never was one) formed the basis of China’s decision to reach agreements with Mr Ma’s administration on such issues as trade, the start of cross-strait flights and allowing Chinese tourists to visit the island. But few expect these accords to unravel. China sees them as useful tools for boosting its influence in Taiwan. And as China prepares for sweeping leadership changes late next year, many in Taiwan believe it is unlikely to be in a mood for conflict.
Gaining voter support in Taichung and neighbouring counties is regarded by both parties as a crucial test of their ability to win overall, both in the presidential polls on January 14th and in elections on the same day for the national parliament. The region is a buffer between the DPP’s stronghold in the south of the island and the KMT’s in the north. Mr Ma’s decision to go there to investigate persimmon prices was an attempt to win over its farming community, which the DPP has been assiduously courting. Ms Tsai chose as her running-mate a former minister of agriculture, Su Jia-chyuan, who is popular in the area.
To encourage support from farmers and other less-affluent citizens (and poke at the KMT’s big-business associations), the DPP has been deploying plastic piggy banks. It has distributed some 200,000 of them and urged people to fill them with small donations to the party that will be handed over in a mass-emptying outside the presidential palace in Taipei on December 10th. The brightly coloured little objects appear to be in demand. “If we win, it will be on the back of a piggy revolution”, says the DPP’s Ms Hsiao. If so, China might at least be a little comforted that for once in a DPP campaign, it was not the main focus.