by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 中央選舉委員會

THE THIRD AND final presidential debate, like the first two, was largely a non-event. The debate serves as the last parting shot between the three presidential candidates before election day itself, but the race is not a close enough one that the debate has any way of changing the outcome of the election. Although a Tsai presidency seems all but certain, what Chu and Soong are capable of doing at this point is eroding away Tsai Ing-Wen’s support base. Thus, it may be logical to focus primarily on Tsai’s comments during the debate

For her part, Tsai stuck to many of the same talking points she stuck to in previous debates. Tsai began her comments by referencing the plight of indigenous hunter Tama Talum, for example, in early remarks—a popular cause among Taiwanese civil society activists—in yet another move calculated to demonstrate to civil society that she is on the same page as them. Tsai also stressed her opposition to nuclear power, as hews close to the majority view of Taiwanese civil society, a point which Eric Chu criticized her on. It may be significant to note that during the debate Tsai raised her campaign ad, “Walking with Children”, as embodying of her social vision for Taiwan. One vaguely wonders whether Tsai’s continually reiterating talking points aimed at appealing to civil society disguises lack of concrete policies of her own, however.

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When Tsai did hit on policy, Tsai emphasized her support for Taiwan joining the TPP and RCEP, two points which Eric Chu had previously attempted to use to attack Tsai. In particular, Chu attacked Tsai on the point of Tsai’s support for the TPP but not the RCEP, seeing as China is part of the RCEP. But Tsai during his debate stressed that had always supported Taiwan being part of the RCEP. 

As with the previous debate, Chu has attempted to use the issue of pork imported from the US as a wedge agains Tsai’s support of joining the TPP, in which allowing for imports of American pork would be a precondition to joining. Tsai did not directly respond but instead claimed that she had not agreed to allow imports of American pork and suggested that there was a need for some amount of deliberation, stressing that she would not be hasty in allowing for imports. But Chu may actually have a point that Tsai has might agree to allow American pork imports in Taiwan as a means of drawing Taiwan closer to the US by way of the TPP.

In this way, we might note that Tsai was not on the offensive in this or any of the past debates. Tsai was not able to take the offensive and did not seem to try to do so, again, her victory in upcoming presidential elections being all but certain and so not needing to. Only a few exchanges between Tsai and Chu occurred in which Tsai accused Chu of continuing the policies began under Ma Ying-Jeou and Chu attacked Tsai for vagueness. Tsai has been vague on many points to date, in that Tsai’s strategy has been to provide as little grounds for attacks on her in the future by giving responses that do not actually reveal very much. Although the public may tire of when the KMT uses the same, continual issues to attack her, such as on cross-strait relations, it also is that Tsai actually may not responded very strongly to these criticisms.

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If the second debate was noteworthy in part because all candidates claimed to be in support of reform, it is of note how the third and final debate brought up the notion of identity politics this time around. The last presidential debate continued the trend of all candidates expressing calls for reform, for example, both KMT and DPP candidates expressing support for raising minimum wage or providing for legislative reform.

In particular, this debate saw much discussion of what policies would benefit Taiwan’s ethnic minorities, including not only indigenous peoples, but Hakka. All candidates, as with before, attempted to claim that they were representative of Taiwan’s multicultural society even when this stressed belief, as in Chu claiming that his family spoke Taiwanese, Hakka, and Mandarin at home—although it is also true that Chu is not totally waishengren. In particular, all candidates agreed on the importance of policies to provide economic benefits to ethnic minorities and to cultural preservation.

Interestingly, as a development concerning the future of the KMT and PFP, Eric Chu and James Soong stressed their common ground more than their political differences during this final presidential debate. James Soong had during past debates suggested that the KMT had lost part of its guiding spirit is backing away from Sun Yat-Sen’s Three Principles of the People. This continued during this debate but, as with this debate’s heavy focus on identity, both Soong and Chu joined in framing identification with the “Republic of China” as a form of cultural identity which they shared and a set of cultural values they wished to defend.

By this logic, criticism of the KMT and of the ROC structure can be recast as an attack on a form of cultural identity. Where identity politics has traditionally been deployed against the KMT by the DPP, this would be a way of using identity politics to defend the KMT by recasting KMT identity as a form of cultural identity—now under attack.

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Indeed, following suit from Tsai’s raising the “Walking with Children” campaign ad as an example of her social vision for Taiwan, here Eric Chu raised his recent campaign ad “Born in the [Minguo] Fifties Generation” as a demonstration of what was meant by stating that an ROC sense of identification was under attack. We might note that despite disagreements, Soong and Chu hewed closer together in this debate probably for fear that their respective political parties might diverge and, in this way, tear apart the pan-Blue camp. But it is a clever move to recast KMT and ROC identification as a form of minority cultural identity.

The final debate did not add very much to existing discourse but merely confirmed largely what was already known. It would be surprising if any last minute upsets happened at this point, after all. And so we enter the last week before presidential elections.

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