ELECTIONS IN TAIWAN, BOISTEROUS CAMPAIGNS AND VOTE BUYING

ELECTIONS IN TAIWAN

Presidential elections are held every four years. The last one was in 2012. The next one is in 2016. The president and vice president are elected on the same ticket by popular vote for four-year terms (eligible for a second term). The last was election last held on January 14, 2012 (next to be held in January 2016) Ma Ying-jeou was elected president in 2012 with 51.6 percent of the vote. Tsai Ing-wen won 45.6 percent and James Soong Chu-ye took 2.8 percent. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Elections for the Legislative Yuan were last held on January 14, 2012 (next to be held in January 2016). Legislative and presidential elections used to be held at different times but now they are held on the same day. Election results in 2012 for the Legislative Yuan (percent of vote by party): KMT 44.6 percent, DPP 34.6 percent, TSU 9.0 percent, PFP 5.5 percent, others 6.3 percent; seats by party - KMT 64, DPP 40, PFP 3, TSU 3, NPSU 2, independent. =

Suffrage: 20 years of age; universal. A total of 13,305 polling stations were used in the 2000 elections. Taiwanese elections are often characterized by vote-buying, unsubstantiated sex scandal accusations, fist fights between supporters nd occasional bombings.

See History

Political Campaigns in Taiwan

Taiwanese election campaigns are long, free wheeling affairs. Presidential campaigns have lasted for six months and have been characterized by personal attacks, dirty tricks, accusations of bribery and corruption, bitter television debates, extreme views and even claims of fake assassination attempts. Vans with loudpseakers blast slogans and songs. Candidates hit temples and shopping centers to shake hands and seek votes. In the past there have been bombings.

Local election begin with prayers at temples and often feature scuffles with police, lavish fundraising parties, partisan pollsters, riot police keeping rival groups from fighting each other at rallies, and accusation of vote buying by "ghosts." Streets are filled with banners, flags and billboards with candidates’ faces and party symbols. Trucks and minibuses and trucks with mounted loudspeakers drive through the streets, blaring music, candidates’s names and campaign speeches.

Campaign rallies have a carnival-like atmosphere. Describing a Kuomintang rally in the early 2000s, Brook Larmer wrote in Newsweek, “ Blind musicians played Taiwanese songs as soap bubble cascaded across the stage.” Crowds were “busy watching the fireworks and the dancers in slinky velvet outfits.” When the music stopped and the lights dimmed, rank and file party supporters came out and gave prayer-meeting testimonials in which they expressed their devotion and affection for the party and its candidates.”

Campaign reforms imposed by President Chen Shui-ban after the 2000 elections toned down the carnival-like atmosphere of the campaign somewhat. The parties then began directing their money into radio and television advertising and focused more on island-wide issues rather than letting local politicians fend for themselves.

Taiwan's Vibrant Election Culture

Oscar Chung wrote on Taiwan info: “With voter fatigue growing, the nation's political campaigns are constantly striving for creative ways to get their messages across. On a warm December morning at his campaign headquarters on Changan East Road in Taipei, Frank Hsieh, the 2008 presidential candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), posed for photojournalists with two dolls. "It's easy to distinguish between these two dolls. The one with hair is Hsieh, and the bald one is his running mate Su Tseng-hang," said the host at the launch ceremony for paraphernalia promoting the Hsieh-Su ticket, drawing laughter from supporters. That afternoon, a Taipei outlet exclusively selling the dolls and other campaign merchandise opened. A van selling campaign items soon joined the publicity effort supporting the DPP presidential ticket, traveling with the candidates as they campaigned around Taiwan. [Source: Oscar Chung, taiwaninfo.nat.gov.tw, March 2008 \^/]

“The next day, Ma Ying-jeou, the Kuomintang (KMT) presidential hopeful, showed up in red clothes and red hat at a charity event at Taipei's Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. With Christmas three days away, this Santa was the focus of the media as he sold a work of art for charity and distributed sweets to the crowd. In late December, with only three months to go before the presidential election on March 22, the publicity campaigns of Taiwan's two major political parties were gaining momentum. Books about both candidates were being sold. A former Hsieh aide had penned one about the candidate's life entitled Striving for Victory in Adversity, while Ma and running mate Vincent Siew co-authored Managing the Nation: Winning Strategies for Taiwan. \^/

"Compared with the KMT, the DPP is often deemed to be better at campaign publicity," says Cheng Tzu-leong, a professor in National Chengchi University's (NCCU) Department of Advertising. In Cheng's opinion, President Chen Shui-bian was a pioneering force in campaign publicity, always daring to try something new. In the 1989 legislative elections, Chen used the slogan "Viva Taiwan Independence" at a time when authorities considered advocating independence a form of sedition, and sedition was punishable by imprisonment. \^/

“The Chen campaign in the 1994 Taipei mayoral election also made history by creating songs especially for the campaign. Although previous campaigns had used inspiring songs, Cheng says they had not created new ones. "Chen was also the first candidate in Taiwan to use online bulletin boards to communicate with young people, which was why many of them supported him," Cheng says. \^/

Modern Political Campaigning in Taiwan

Oscar Chung wrote on Taiwan info: “Taiwan's election campaigns are also known for their outdoor advertisements. Large campaign billboards are frequently found on the outside of buildings, signs indicating bus routes are covered with campaign ads, and colorful flags promoting the candidates are planted on traffic islands and attached to lampposts. Blue pick-up trucks and vans slowly weave along roads and lanes, blaring campaign slogans and election songs. Free meals are also provided by candidates, mostly at outdoor banquets in rural areas. In short, there is virtually no way to ignore political campaigns during election season. [Source: Oscar Chung, taiwaninfo.nat.gov.tw, March 2008 \^/]

“Political parties also rely on timely television advertisements to get their messages across. One day after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was elected late last December, the DPP and KMT released television advertisements that sought to capitalize on Lee's success. Hsieh's headquarters stressed his similarities with Lee, noting that as the respective former mayors of Seoul and Kaohsiung, they had both successfully rejuvenated the rivers running through their cities. Ma's advertisement emphasized his ambition to improve Taiwan's economy, which was reminiscent of Lee's campaign pledge to build South Korea into an economic powerhouse. "We bet Lee would win, so we started to prepare for the advertisement one week before the result of the Korean presidential election was known," says Chuang Chi-chang, deputy director of the publicity department of the Hsieh campaign. \^/

“Both parties rely heavily on the Internet to convey messages and build images for their candidates. While the DPP began exploring the digital arena early on, the KMT is catching up quickly. "For the first time in the KMT's campaign history, we are serious about letting supporters take part on our website and allowing them to interact with each other," says Yen Tong-ling, spokeswoman for the Ma campaign's online effort. The website was launched in the fall of last year and claimed 5,000 registered members by the middle of January. In addition to reading campaign news and information about Ma's platform, members can also set up blogs and post their own opinions. After events such as campaign-related press conferences, full-length videos are immediately posted online. "TV news usually only covers a fraction of the content of an event, but you can see them in their entirety on our site," Yen adds. From time to time she also interviews the candidates and posts their remarks online.” \^/

Taiwanese Election Merchandising

Oscar Chung wrote on Taiwan info: “As an example of election-related merchandising, the Bian Hat Factory has been perhaps the most successful domestic campaign merchandiser to date. Selling hats emblazoned with Chen's nickname "a-Bian," the campaign unit was set up to promote his 1998 campaign for a second term as Taipei mayor. Initial sales were not impressive, according to Daniel Lo, the factory's general manager. However, when the DPP put up a campaign billboard at the factory featuring a portrait of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, wearing an a-Bian hat several months before the December election, sales skyrocketed. "That caused a vigorous public debate, with some favoring the idea and some opposing it. That's when the hats really started to sell," Lo says. [Source: Oscar Chung, taiwaninfo.nat.gov.tw, March 2008 \^/]

“Chen failed to win another term as mayor, but many of his supporters encouraged him to run in the 2000 presidential election. Thus, the Bian Hat Factory continued to operate. It also decided to diversify its products and do more design research. Three designers even went to Japan in the spring of 1999 to seek inspiration, as Japanese fashion has a strong influence on fashion in Taiwan. "Nobody was as professional and serious as we were in developing campaign merchandise," Lo says.\^/

“In total, more than one million a-Bian hats were sold from mid-1998 through May 2000, including the official NT$100 (US$3) hats and unauthorized imitations that sold for as much as NT$300 (US$9). More than 100 Chen items such as T-shirts and decorative magnets were developed, with the hat and a Chen doll selling the best. "Those products made people feel closer to politics," says Chao Tien-lin, a spokesman for the Hsieh camp. \^/

“The Bian Hat Factory operated until two months after Chen won the presidential election in March 2000. It was reopened in early December 2003 as Chen kicked off his campaign for a second presidential term, which he won in March 2004. The factory closed at the end of that month. "The anti-KMT elements [most of whom became DPP members after the party was established in 1986] relied on generating publicity to promote their ideals. This was the only channel through which they could fight against the KMT," Cheng says. "In contrast, the KMT has a strong grass-roots network of canvassers that can be easily mobilized for elections. They don't rely on publicity work as much as the DPP." \^/

Voter Burnout in Taiwan

Oscar Chung wrote on Taiwan info: “NCCU's Cheng sees an element of burnout among some voters. While the 2001 legislative elections saw the participation of 66.2 percent of all eligible voters, the turnout for this year's legislative elections, which the KMT won in a landslide, was only 58.5 percent, a record low. "We feel that there is always a campaign going on, as TV stations broadcast programs [with analysts discussing Taiwan's politics] showing sympathy toward a specific political camp and criticizing the rival camp throughout the year. In reality, these programs are nothing more than political campaigns, even though there may not be an election anytime soon," Cheng says. [Source: Oscar Chung, taiwaninfo.nat.gov.tw, March 2008 \^/]

“But growing voter disenchantment has not made political parties less keen on offering campaign merchandise. "While the products of the Bian Hat Factory featured just one version of Chen's image, those produced for Hsieh's campaign have many," Chao says. A line of products bearing the image of Hsieh in an indigenous costume was already on sale in December last year. On February 14, Valentine's Day, Hsieh's campaign planned to introduce a pair of dolls of Hsieh and his wife. Meanwhile, the Ma camp decided to focus on only two items, one of which is a stuffed horse, since ma is also the Chinese word for horse. The KMT campaign's merchandise went on sale in early January. \^/

“The Commercial Times, a Chinese-language local paper targeting businesspeople, suggests that with the difficulty of raising money and the growing public indifference to elections, the atmosphere surrounding this year's campaigns has been relatively subdued. Compared with the legislative elections in 2004, the income generated by bus companies from carrying election ads on the outside of buses this year plummeted 50 percent. The revenue generated from manufacturing legislative campaign flags also fell by 30 percent in northern Taiwan and by 50 percent in southern Taiwan. Although the dramatic drops are certainly related to the reduction of the number of seats in the legislature from 225 to 113, which had the effect of halving the number of candidates purchasing flags, voter burnout caused by incessant political campaigning likely also played a role.

Taoist Gods, Lucky Numbers and Taiwanese Elections

Oscar Chung wrote on Taiwan info: “The presidential campaigns have also relied heavily on the time-honored election staple of visiting religious groups and temples dedicated to Buddhist or Taoist deities, which are worshipped by the majority of Taiwanese. Candidates are able to interact with voters by visiting temples, which often serve as community centers in rural areas, and footage of their visits often shows up on the evening news. Last December's inauguration of the Great Three Purities Shrine, an important new Taoist temple in Taichung County, became a highly political occasion. Ma and Siew were guests of honor, as was President Chen, who was canvassing for the Hsieh camp. Chen gave the temple a plaque inscribed with the eye-catching English words "UN for Taiwan" at the bottom and the Chinese characters for "May the Three Taoist Gods Protect Taiwan" at the top. Hsieh spoke on the same day in Taipei about the need to hold the referendum on Taiwan's entry into the UN at a celebration of the founding of his camp's Taoist support group. [Source: Oscar Chung, taiwaninfo.nat.gov.tw, March 2008 \^/]

“Not content with merely seeking divine help, Taiwan's presidential campaigns are also trying other means of ensuring good fortune. To reach Hsieh's campaign headquarters, callers must dial two fives followed by six eights, because the Mandarin word for the number "five" (wu) sounds similar to the word for "I" (wo), and because eight is an auspicious number in Chinese culture. One phone number for Ma's campaign headquarters begins with two sevens, followed by 191919. While the number seven is seen as lucky around the world, the Mandarin pronunciation for "one nine" (yi jiu) sounds close to Ma's given name, Ying-jeou. Similarly, it is no coincidence that Ma's headquarters is located at No.19 Aiguo W. Road in Taipei. \^/

Negative Campaigning in Taiwan

Oscar Chung wrote on Taiwan info: “As the presidential election draws near, the number of negative campaign advertisements is growing. In the run-up to the legislative elections, voters were subjected to KMT and DPP television advertisements that accused the other party of corruption. While such allegations may not convince diehard party loyalists to reconsider their views, they may sway more moderate or undecided voters. Cheng explains that while negative campaigning may not make the electorate more likely to vote for the accusing party, it can prevent voters from supporting the party's opponents, especially if new information about an old scandal can be found. [Source: Oscar Chung, taiwaninfo.nat.gov.tw, March 2008 \^/]

"Taiwan's campaigns can turn especially ugly, in contrast with those in the United States and other countries, mainly because Taiwanese are split over the identity of Taiwan as a state," NCCU's Cheng says. Public opinion in Taiwan doesn't exert much pressure to curtail ugly campaigning, he adds, while in the United States, highly negative television advertisements generate more controversy, sometimes backfiring on their originators.

Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, many Taiwanese will celebrate the fact that campaign season has come to a merciful end. But for now, Ma and Hsieh are fighting to stay in the public eye by bombarding the electorate with all of the publicity tools at their disposal, many of which are distinctive hallmarks of Taiwan's unique election culture.

Vote Buying in Taiwan

Vote buying has long been a fixture of Taiwan elections but is now less abvious than it was in the past, when candidates routinely handed out cash, gifts such as soap and vinyl jackets, junkets, free meals and sightseeing trip with supporters. Local bosses who could round up votes were wined and dined with steak, scotch and sushi. The practice was far more effective in local race, where some wisely funneled money could ensure a victory, than nationwide elections, which required too much money to affect an outcome.

Most of the largess usually came from the Kuomintang which by far had the most money to throw around. Sometimes payof fs were made using some rather creative schemes. At many gambling parlors, which have traditionally been linked with Kuomintang, people placed bets on candidates they believed were favored by the owner. If the candidate won they won a cash pay out.

Vote buying was outlawed in 1985 with violators facing up to five years in prison. The government offered $500,000 for information on vote buyers. Even so the practice continued and few people were charged, largely because recipients considered it a tradition. It wasn’t until Chen Shui-ban became president in 2000 that a serious effort was made to cut down on vote buying. During the 2001 parliamentary election, hundreds of police and prosecutors were ordered to fan out across the country to ensure the election was clean.

Vote buying has as also been undermined by voters not voting as they promised. There were reports of people taking large wads of cash from the Kuomintang and then voting for the opposition. A betel nut vendor told the New York Times in 2002, “People have gotten smarter. They’ll take the money, but that doesn’t mean they’ll vot for the candidate.”

See Local Government

see History

Vote-Buying Taints Taiwan's Democracy: Analysts

In 2009, Peter Harmsen of AFP wrote: “Taiwan should be a shining example of democracy in East Asia but it is tainted by vote-buying, and Saturday's local elections are no exception, observers say.Taiwan's voters will go to the polls to elect mayors, county chiefs and city councillors in major parts of the island, amid reports of candidates spending their way into public office in defiance of official vows to the opposite. "We will not buy votes during the elections and we will not become corrupt as the ruling party," said President Ma Ying-jeou, also the head of the Kuomintang party, in late November. [Source: Peter Harmsen, AFP, December 2, 2009 ~~]

“Just days after Ma was speaking, justice ministry data showed prosecutors were investigating 128 alleged vote-buying cases for local mayor and county chief elections, and 807 cases in local councillor elections. "If you look at other East Asian countries like South Korea and Japan, I'd say vote-buying is worse than in the other countries by far," said Christian Schafferer, a political scientist at Taiwan's Overseas Chinese University. The situation is particularly serious in rural areas, where local politicians enjoy enormous prestige and often have close personal connections with the voters. "In the big cities, young people will take the money and vote for whomever they want to, or not vote at all. But older people in the countryside may feel a moral obligation," said Schafferer. ~~

“The price of a vote can range from 500 Taiwan dollars (15 US dollars) to several thousand dollars depending on how close the race is, according to Wang Yeh-lih, a political science professor at National Taiwan University. "Candidates usually buy votes through their key campaign staff who have close ties with the local communities," said Wang. "The situation has been improving in recent years with more local staffers being prosecuted for vote-buying," he said. ~~

“There is little doubt the harmful impact on democracy is real and often prevents the voice of the people being genuinely reflected in election results, according to observers. "In an election for county chief you have to engage in massive buying but if it's an election for the city council, you don't need so many votes," said Schafferer. "You can actually take out the other candidate by buying votes. Then of course it's not good for democracy." ~~

Why Vote-Buying Endures in Taiwan

On why vote buying has played such a big part in Taiwanese elections, Peter Harmsen of AFP wrote: “Part of the explanation is history, traceable back to the end of World War II in 1945, when a defeated Japan gave up 50 years of colonial rule on Taiwan, handing over the reins to the Kuomintang, then also the ruler in China. The Kuomintang had no links to local Taiwanese society, which had been insulated from the mainland for half a century, and it had to ally itself with existing powerbrokers. They were typically to be found among influential local families who had dominated their communities for generations, offering protection against disaster and public goods in return for grassroots support. [Source: Peter Harmsen, AFP, December 2, 2009 ~~]

“Even today, these families are often in charge, and are more crucial at the local level than the big national parties, according to Alexander Tan, an expert on Taiwan politics at New Zealand's University of Canterbury. "Public office is seen as a private thing. They run it like a private corporation. It's quite entrenched," he said. "The party is the big dog, and the tail is the local politicians, and the tail wags the dog." ~~

“Weeding out the practice completely could be hard because the local factions remain crucial for political parties' ability to extend to all corners of society. "Local families are the ones that have to be courted by the large parties, so in some sense, it's easier for the parties to look the other way and ignore what's happening," said Tan from the University of Canterbury. "If party A says it wants to clean it up, local politicians will ask how about party B, do you want to go with us." ~~

Election Violence in Taiwan

According to Associated Press: “Acts of violence are unusual in election campaigns in Taiwan, which began a gradual transition from one-party dictatorship to fully functioning democracy in the late 1980s. Violence carried out by Taiwan's gangs is also limited, though the gangs themselves exercise considerable political influence, particularly on Taiwanese county governments.

In 1995, a former gangster who became the speaker in his county council was shot at point blank range apparently in revenge in a dispute over gambling. A speaker in another country council was put on death row after he admitted to murdering a man who refused to pay protection money. See Organized Crime and Politics Under Politics, Political Parties and Politicians

See Assassination Attempt of Chen Shui-ban Under Chen Shui-ban, History

Drunk Taiwan Election Loser Shoots Rival's Sister

In December 2009, a defeated candidate in a local election in Taiwan turned up drunk and armed with a handgun at his opponent's camp and shot and injured his rival's sister. AFP reported: “Chen Chen-hui, 56, who lost his seat as head of Huwei township in the south of the island, arrived with a loaded gun at the campaign headquarters of Lin Wen-bin late Saturday after realising he had been ousted, according to police. [Source: AFP, December 7, 2009 ==]

“The sight of Chen visibly inebriated and toting a lethal weapon caused panic in the crowd that had gathered to celebrate the victory, with some attempting to wrestle the gun from the unexpected visitor. During the ensuing struggle, Chen allegedly fired a shot before he was subdued, hitting Lin's sister in the leg, police and prosecutors said. A local district court has ordered the detention of Chen, a member of the ruling Kuomintang party, on suspicion of attempted murder and unauthorised ownership of a firearm. ==

“The possible charge of attempted murder mainly refers to Chen's decision to carry a loaded gun to his competitor's headquarters, a prosecutor said. "We prefer to see the shooting as an isolated case," an official at the National Police Agency told AFP. "Chen was very drunk at the time of the incident." The sister was only slightly injured and has been released from hospital, according to police. ==

KMT Politician Shot in the Face Before the 2010 Elections

Lien Sheng-wen, a KMT politician also known as Sean Lien, was shot in the face as he spoke at a suburban Taipei rally in support of a Kuomintang candidate for city council. His father, Lien Chan, widely reported to be one of Taiwan’s wealthiest people, was Taiwan’s vice president from 1996 to 2000 and the party’s losing presidential candidate in 2004. The motive for the shooting on Friday was unknown. The Associated Press quoted a Taiwan television report as saying that a suspect apprehended by the police was nicknamed ‘horse face,’ suggesting a link to Taiwan criminal gangs. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, November 26, 2010]

The Taipei Times reported: Sean Lien was shot in the face when campaigning for a KMT Sinbei councilor candidate in Yonghe , Taipei County. He was rushed to the hospital and survived the accident. It is believed that the incident help prompted some swing voters with pan-blue leaning to give their votes to the KMT candidates, especially in Taipei City and Sinbei City, where the candidates from the two parties were fighting a neck-to-neck battle. Political analyst Ku Chung-hwa of National Chengchi University said the accident helped Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin and Sinbei mayor-elect Eric Chu win the battles against strong rivals, DPP Taipei mayoral candidate Su Tseng-chang and DPP Sinbei candidate Tsai Ing-wen, who threatened the KMT candidates throughout the election campaign with high support rates. <<>>

The BBC reported: “Medical officials said Lien Cheng-wen was in a stable condition. He was speaking at an election rally on behalf of a ruling Kuomintang party candidate in suburban Taipei when a man approached and shot him, reports said. A suspect was arrested at the scene of the attack on Mr Lien with a gun and 48 bullets, a local police official said. Another man was hit, reportedly by the same bullet that struck Mr Lien, and killed. Hospital officials said the bullet struck the left side of Mr Lien's face and exited from his right temple. A Kuomintang party spokesman said Mr Lien's brain had not been damaged. [Source: BBC News, November 26, 2010]

Associated Press reported: “Police said Lien Sheng-wen, son of former Vice President Lien Chan, and another man, surnamed Huang, were hit when the assailant rushed the stage at an elementary school in Yung Ho, on the outskirts of the capital. A candidate for city council was apparently the intended target of the attack. Hospital officials said that though he was shot in the face and temple, Lien Sheng-wen's life was not in danger. Huang, however, succumbed to his wounds. Former Vice President Lien Chan and his 40-year-old son are both members of the ruling Nationalist Party. [Source: AP, November 26, 2010]

“A police official from Yung Ho, who asked not to be identified, said the suspect had 48 bullets in his possession when he was taken into custody. Taiwanese TV stations reported that the suspect is nicknamed "horse face," a sobriquet that would likely indicate his membership in one of Taiwan's criminal gangs. After the attack, President Ma Ying-jeou rushed to Taipei's National Taiwan University Hospital, where Lien was being treated. "Taiwan is a democracy," Ma told reporters there. "We will not tolerate such violence." Hospital spokeswoman Tan Ching-ting said Lien was conscious when he was brought to the facility just before 9 p.m. "His wounds are in his left part of his face and his right temple," she said. "He is now in surgery." [Ibid]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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