Candidates Play it Safe in Debate as Taiwan Election Nears

The Wall Street Journal’s China Realtime Report notes the lack of fireworks during Saturday’s televised presidential debate in Taiwan, the first of three ahead of the election in January 2012, as the three candidates stuck to the script in an event usually headlined by memorable sound bites regarding cross-Strait relations:

The three candidates — incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (or Nationalist) Party, Democratic Progressive Party chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen and People First Party founder James Soong — tread very carefully over the two-and-a-half-hour debate. It was a sign, commentators said, of how tight race the race has become, with the candidates preferring to play it safe and avoid losing votes – or inviting attacks.

Unlike the televised debates ahead of the previous presidential election, which had been dominated by Taiwan’s relations with China, the three presidential hopefuls this time spent almost half of the time addressing economic concerns — joblessness, stagnant wages and a wide wealth gap — although none of them managed to offer much in the way of specific remedies.

“The debate was quite empty,” said Yu Tzu-hsiang, chairman of department of speech communication at Shih Hsin University. “There were moments when I expected some follow-up questions or attacks, but there weren’t.”

The Taipei Times published a transcript of the debate, which comes as conflicting polls show Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ying-wen in a virtual dead heat. Tsai questioned Ma’s efforts to bring Taiwan and mainland China closer together and adhere to the so-called “1992 Consensus” – bilateral recognition of the “One China Principle” with differing opinions of what “One China” really means – claiming that such a policy has left the KMT and DPP farther apart than Taipei and Beijing. She proposed a democratic ”Taiwan Consensus” to challenge Ma’s so-called “Three Noes,” a policy which seeks “no unification, no independence, no use of force” (and a revision of the more extreme 1980s policy of former president Chiang Ching-kuo which pledged ”no contact, no compromise, no negotiation” with China). Ma believes that a majority of Taiwanese support his policy, but Taiwanese think tank consultant Tung Li-wen said that such a stance only divides Taiwan and ignores the need for the people to decide for themselves. From The Taipei Times:

Saying that the pro-unification and pro-Taiwan independence positions both enjoy support, Tung added that it is crucial to Taiwan’s democracy that every person can proclaim his or her own opinion and that Taiwan’s future is decided via a democratic mechanism.

“That President Ma Ying-jeou dared others to support [his] idea of ‘no unification, no independence,’ is an act tantamount to killing the ability of Taiwanese to choose their future. It not only harms Taiwan’s democracy, it also deepens the blue-green division and becomes a tool that Ma can use to tear Taiwan apart,” Tung said.

See also dueling YouTube videos posted by the Kuomintang and by Tsai Ing-wen, which The Wall Street Journal says marks the beginning of a media blitz that will soon ramp up, as well as additional CDT coverage of cross-Strait relations.