Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter noon

Wow! So cold it is, the papers reported yesterday that fish were dying in the waters off the Penghu islands in the Taiwan Strait because the sustained cold had lowered ocean water temperatures too much. I’ve decided the weather gods have ceased to exist, incinerated by our curses last week, and we’re stuck with this cold forever…

…spent much of this week up in Taipei talking to media people and absorbing the alarming insularity of the capital. Everywhere I went people assured me that Ma would win, which ordinarily would give me great hope for Hsieh, given the way Taipei has no clue what goes on south of the Lungtan Exit on Highway 3, but one excellent predictor also goes Ma: the election “market” run out of the Center for Prediction Markets of National Chengchi University. That market is uncannily accurate, and it is predicting a Ma victory at this point, as Max Hirsch of the Kyodo News reminded me. I also had the pleasure of finally meeting Katherine Hille of the Financial Times, who turned out to be formidably tough, intelligent, and extremely well-informed.

Lots of stuff coming up in the Presidential Election. On Feb 24 Ma and Hsieh have their first debate. The 28th, of course, is the 60th anniversary of the 2-28 revolt and massacre. That will be followed the very next week by the Party Congress in China. On March 15 falls the anniversary of the Anti-Secession Law. On the 22nd is the election. Coming so close to the election, these may help to create a bounce for the DPP. The DPP also has a history of making up ground in the final weeks….still, the perception in the capital is that Hsieh is running a lackluster campaign.

Some statistics to ponder. In 1996, when Lee Teng-hui won the first Presidential election, turnout was 76%, there were 117,160 invalid ballots with a total of 10,766,199 valid ballots cast. The KMT took 5,813,699 votes (54%), the DPP 2,274,586 (21.13%), the remainder being split between two separate KMT spin-offs, the reactionary Hau Pei-tsun, and Chen Lu-an (2,677,834). In 2000 Lien Chan of the KMT collected only 2,925,513 votes (23.1%), James Soong obtained 4,664,972 votes (36.84%), and Chen got 4,977,697 votes (39.3%). 12,664,393 valid votes were cast, there were 122,278 invalid ballots, and turnout was 82.69%.

In 2004 the KMT conducted a sustained campaign to reduced voter turnout, since turnout favors the DPP. That consisted of a multi-pronged strategy, including getting voters to cast invalid ballots as a “protest” against politics, and the constant propagandizing that politics is pointless and people shouldn’t bother voting, an anti-democracy theme that is still prominent in the media, on talk shows, and so forth. Invalid votes tripled to 337,292. There were 12,914,422 valid votes, representing a turnout of 80.28%. Chen Shui-bian took 6,471,970 votes (50.11%) and Lien Chan received 6,442,452 (49.89%).

Let’s look at the trend:

KMT 5,813,699 + (2,677,834) = 8,491,533 Blue
DPP 2,274,586

KMT 2,925,513 + (4,664,972) = 7590,485 Blue
DPP 4,977,697

KMT 6,442,452
DPP 6,471,970

I have the legislative numbers from the last few elections in a blogpost. I can’t see any relationships in all these numbers yet, and because the legislative and presidential elections are usually staggered, there doesn’t seem to be any way to compare one to the other. Still, the number of invalid votes should return to previous levels (dropping roughly 200,000), and turnout should exceed 80%. Despite the incredible spin coming out of Taipei (”It’s the economy, stupid”) the Blues have not added any new legislative votes — 5.3 million in 1998, 5.1 million in 2001, 4.5 million in 2004, and 5.2 million in 2008. I suspect stagnation there equals stagnation at the Presidential level. If that is the case, then (1) if there is 80% turnout; and (2) the number of invalid votes falls: Hsieh will win by 150,000 votes.

Speaking of turnout, Taiwan Journal has an article on the youth vote discussing the recent roundtable at Soochow University. In every country the young don’t vote; Taiwan is apparently no different (despite this widespread observation, I’d still like to see survey data). The article says that turnout in the Jan 12 legislative election was low — it as 58.25%, collapsing all the way from 59.35% in 2004. In 2001 it was 66.31%, 68% in 1998, and 67% in 1995. Legislative turnout may be falling in the long-term, but it can hardly be described as “low” for an election that has never attracted more than 68% of the voters to the polls. Interestingly, lowest turnout in this election was in Jinmen, Hualien, Taitung, Penghu, Keelung, and Ilan — all Blue areas. High turnouts occurred in the North, where the proportion of the young in the population is large, (Taipei city and county both saw turnout higher than average, but Taoyuan was lower at 56%…). Turnout was also high in Tainan city, Pingtung county, Changhua, Taichung city, and Kaohsiung city and county. What’s the pattern? You tell me….

What can we expect from a Ma presidency? This was the subject of much speculation in venues formal and informal that I hung out at this week. Asia Times has a neat article this week on the restrictions on Chinese brides in Taiwan. Little stuff like that will be relaxed. There will also be a deal on tourism, and people have explained to me that perhaps some carefully controlled transshipping will take place — sea cargo — in Kaohsiung. Some sources say that over time Ma will relax all restrictions on Chinese investment, and that this will cause property prices in the north to skyrocket, since that is the likely destination for any Chinese investment. Restrictions on Taiwanese businesses moving to China will likely be lifted. Eventually mainland labor will be invited over, and the Chinese will absorb Taiwan much the same way they have absorbed Inner Mongolia — a divided nation if there ever was one — and Tibet: demographically. That sort of controversial move will probably not happen until a second Ma term.

All of this will make the Taiwanese working class scream, so I suspect a key move of the Ma presidency will be to buy off the working class by turning back on the infrastructure taps. Once the money starts flowing down to our currently bankrupt local governments, this will raise local incomes — convincing voters that the economy is back on track. It will also give the KMT a chance to tap those flows and replenish the Party coffers. (Note that, as infrastructure spending has been starved by the KMT, it has simultaneously claimed that it has become impoverished. See the connection?). With the working class safely bought off, Ma can….. well, no need to complete that thought.

UPDATE: Don’t miss the great comment below on the election market.