TAIPEI: Scenes of clashes between members of Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, or between police and protesters, have given Taiwan’s politics a negative global image in years past.
In reality, most campaign rallies in Taiwan are peaceful. Global media even describe them as festive. Music, dancers or other entertainment are often warm-up acts for the main event.
As incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Kuomintang (KMT) candidate and Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu and People First Party's James Soong battle in the final days before the Jan 11 vote, are there security concerns for visitors to Taiwan?
Both Tsai and Han plan large outdoor rallies throughout Taiwan, including rallies in Taipei on Friday (Jan 10) night. Attendance by hundreds of thousands of supporters is likely.
My assessment is it is safe to travel to Taiwan both before and after the election. However, post- election, protests over a close or disputed result, or by political party supporters angry at their party’s leadership over poor results, can result in potentially disruptive street protests.
How China reacts to the election result is also important to monitor, especially for corporate leaders and government policy makers in the US and Asia.
POLITICAL VIOLENCE IN TAIWAN
Taiwan has also seen a number of emotionally charged political protests and acts of violence.
The latest incident last month saw a man planting a bomb outside a KMT office in Tainan followed by an overnight police standoff with the suspect in Kaohsiung in which police reportedly fired over 100 rounds.
In 2014, 100,000-strong protests in opposition to a trade agreement with China, which saw protesters storm the Legislative Yuan and the Premier’s office, who were only removed after riot police used water cannons and batons
In 2010, at an election rally, an assailant fired several rounds at a KMT candidate which hit then Vice President Lien Chan’s son and killed one bystander.
In 2006, rallies with tens of thousands calling on then President Chen Shui-bian of the DPP to resign over corruption allegations and counter-rallies went on for an extended period in Taipei.
In 2004, while traveling in an open-top vehicle to solicit votes a day prior to polling day, Chen and Vice President Annette Lu were shot. Amid allegations the shooting was staged to garner sympathy votes, Chen and Lu were re-elected by a margin of 0.22 per cent out of over 13 million votes cast.
KMT supporters held rallies over several weeks, with crowd sizes estimated at 500,000 or more. Small protester groups attempted to storm government buildings.
In 2000, after KMT presidential candidate Lien Chan lost, angry supporters rallied outside party headquarters to demand party leadership resign.
POLLING DAY WILL SEE BUSINESS AS USUAL
In the 2016 presidential election, 66.27 per cent of eligible voters voted versus 74.38 per cent in the 2012 presidential election.
Polling day is not a public holiday, and businesses typically open on Saturday will continue. Staff will vote before their shift begins, or employers adjust duty rosters to accommodate.
Most polling stations are within walking distance of residential areas, especially in urban areas, so heavy traffic is unlikely on the road, on inner city public transport, intra city train or high-speed rail systems.
Voters who must travel long distances to registered voting centres will typically do so prior to polling day. Congestion at Taiwan’s airports is likely before and after the election as voters return to Taiwan to cast their ballot due to the lack of absentee voting.
As many China-based voters will return to Taiwan this week to vote, the respiratory illness outbreak in Wuhan is a public health concern that requires vigilance by authorities.
AN EASY WIN FOR TSAI AND DPP?
How reliable is polling data showing Tsai has a large lead? In recent weeks, KMT’s Han asked his supporters to refuse to answer pollster’s questions or to answer that they will vote for Tsai.
Tsai’s popularity had fallen in the years after her May 2016 inauguration due to poor policy execution, concerns about nepotism, and poor leadership choices, all of which contributed to the KMT’s successes in the November 2018 local elections.
Pro-DPP commentators and government officials attribute that result to interference by China, though there is scant proof that online chatter by Chinese netizens changed voter behaviour. The DPP lost seven municipalities and counties to the KMT
But Tsai has since recovered in polls over 2019, with many analysts attributing this surge to public fears surrounding Taiwan’s future as Hong Kong remains mired in protests. Her stance has resonated with public opinion.
Tsai is widely tipped to win the top position. Notwithstanding Han’s unexpected victory in the Kaohsiung mayoral election in 2018, and early 2019 polls giving him the lead, a presidential election victory for Han was always unlikely. His face-off in Kaohsiung had been an easy win over a lacklustre DPP candidate.
Han’s KMT party also suffers from infighting, an image reinforced by the late and contentious primary to select a presidential candidate.
READ: Taiwan president channels Hong Kong protests in appeal for votes: 'Don't believe the Communists'
The KMT has been plagued by the unpopularity of the policies pursued by former president Ma Ying-jeou in his second term. The late start to Han’s campaign and his lack of mastery over the wide range of non-China issues of concern to voters, including childcare, the economy, education, energy and the environment, and stagnant wages will also weigh heavily on voters' minds.
For these issues Tsai can cite policies and achievements Han will struggle to match.
Repeat presidential candidate Soong dramatically improved his vote total in 2016 over 2012, but his current campaign has aimed more realistically at helping his party’s legislative candidates meet the 5 per cent threshold in the political party ballot vote to win seats in the Legislative Yuan.
For Tsai, who won 56.12 per cent of the vote in 2016, winning over 50 per cent is expected, and receiving less than the 51.60 per cent Ma received for his second term would speed up the pace at which stakeholders refer to Tsai as a lame duck.
KMT leadership continues to express optimism that Han can repeat his upset victory in Kaohsiung, especially if voters believe Han can deliver on the security and economic prosperity that forms part of his campaign slogan.
The DPP hopes to retain its majority in the legislature, notwithstanding the 2018 local election results. In the 2016 poll held simultaneously with the presidential election, the DPP won 68 out of 113 seats, giving it a majority for the first time.
Over the past four years, the DPP has used the political capital earned to pursue its legislative agenda, including the recent passage of an anti-infiltration law that targets foreign interference.
After the election, winning candidates might come out to thank voters in automobile caravans via major thoroughfares, with firecrackers sometimes used to celebrate. Disappointed supporters might congregate outside candidate or party headquarters to demand the resignation of party officials.
Travellers whose onward destination after Taiwan is China, Hong Kong or Macau should avoid carrying election souvenirs such as signs and clothing, which may lead to further questions from immigration and customs officers, delays and potentially denial of entry.
Multinational corporate executives with operations in Taiwan, and government policymakers whose portfolio includes Taiwan, may be forced to make difficult Taiwan policy decisions over the next four years.
A Tsai second term may provoke China to take actions exerting pressure on Taiwan’s visibility in the global business and political spaces and decision-makers must balance engagements with Taiwan against Chinese sensitivities and wider goals in China.
Ross Darrell Feingold is director, business development at SafePro Group, a consultancy that advises corporate clients about travel safety and risk mitigation around the world.