Written by Stefan Braig.

One of the core elements of Taiwan’s soft power and public diplomacy is its self-portrayal as the beacon of democracy among ethnic Chinese societies. While for the green camp, democracy is something that sets Taiwan apart from China, for the ruling KMT democracy is what makes Taiwan a model for future political development on the Chinese mainland. As such, democracy is often invoked by Ma Ying-jeou to comment on any political crisis in China, like this year, when he spoke out to support the Hong Kong protesters in his national day speech, calling on Beijing to let Hong Kong ‘go democratic’.

Democracy is certainly Taiwan’s pride. And Taiwan’s presidential elections indeed make quite an impact on the feelings of many mainland Chinese (netizen). Just read for instance, the 2012 article in the Hong Kong Cheng Ming Monthly (no. 441) entitled “The presidential election in Taiwan evokes the mainland’s yearning for democracy” – a yearning, which sometimes makes use of sarcastic expressions, like in the online comment by one Chinese fellow shortly before Taiwan’s 2012 presidential elections: “For mainland Chinese to see the presidential election in Taiwan and particularly  the TV debate between presidential candidates, is just like watching a eunuch looking at an erotic picture: they are excited but helpless to do anything.”

With the November elections imminent one might ask if the same holds true for local elections. Do they materialize Taiwan’s soft power vis-à-vis China? On the pro side there are televised debates between the candidates for the Taipei City mayorship, and these may evoke the same feelings of yearning among Chinese watchers as the verbal showdowns between presidential candidates. On the flip side: smear campaigns, vote buying, judicial persecution of candidates. Just look at the battle for the top job in Taipei City Hall, arguably the most important among the more than 11.000 positions up for grabs on November 29, and definitely the one getting the most attention from the media and the opposing party camps. When the KMT found that their candidate Sean Lien was trailing far behind his main rival, independent DPP-backed Ko Wen-je, KMT legislator Lo Shu-lei accused Ko, who is a surgeon at National Taiwan University Hospital, of having used a special university account for money laundering and tax evasion. Prosecutors checked files and figures, Ko’s colleagues were questioned and even summoned to testify in the Legislative Yuan. Nothing of Lo’s accusations could be substantiated. Obviously, the whole matter was just like throwing dirt at a political opponent to try one’s luck, without any evidence of wrong-doing by the accused.

Vote buying in various forms has long stained the democratic quality of Taiwan’s elections, and although the phenomenon is nowadays much less common than it had been a few decades ago, suspicious facts have been reported this time again. The China Production Party (CPP), an ally of the KMT in supporting Sean Lien’s Taipei mayoral campaign, has been investigated for allegedly paying people money for showing up at Lien’s campaign rallies. A practice, by the way, that the chairwoman of the China Production Party at a campaign rally for Lien in mid-Octber openly admitted to have been involved in during the 2008 presidential election campaign already. Besides, the Association of Taiwan Enterprises on the Mainland, a ‘natural’ KMT ally as well, is being investigated for offering to pay 50% of the price of air tickets for Taiwanese business people on the mainland to come back and vote for Sean Lian in November.

Even judicial persecution of rebel candidates is not unheard of this year. The KMT’s Huang Ching-tai, Keelung City Council Speaker, secured himself the party’s official nomination to run for Keelung City mayor in January. After he was detained and investigated for corruption in June, the party revoked his nomination in favour of someone else. Thereupon Huang, who had been released on bail, declared he would run for office any way. The KMT, quite understandably, is not amused, especially since such a well-established local politician has a large personal support base in his city. The interesting thing is that the prosecutors’ filed an application to the Keelung District Court to have Huang detained again which was accepted on September 5, just three days after the defendant had officially registered his candidacy for Keelung mayor.  Hard as it is to prove that the KMT stands behind all this, the case’s message was not lost on other local politicians within the blue camp. In Nantou County, where former county magistrate Lee Chao-ching’s wife Chien Su-tuan had been expected to run for the same office against another KMT endorsed candidate, she eventually refrained from doing so, citing her family’s fear that it might become the target of a “political witch hunt and judicial persecution, having seen how prosecutors went after Keelung City Council Speaker and independent mayoral candidate Huang Ching-tai’s (黃景泰) case.”

In Taiwan’s local politics, phenomena such as these are very common. So what about the potential of the upcoming local elections to contribute to the appeal of Taiwan’s democracy? Keep in mind that when reporting on Taiwanese politics and society the Chinese media likes to point out how “chaotic” democracy is in Taiwan. So the current campaign provides much ammunition for those interested in discrediting Taiwan’s democracy. However, I think Taiwan rest easy for two reasons. First, things like those described above happen a lot during national elections in Taiwan as well, without destroying the yearning for democracy of the part of mainland Chinese. And second, the Chinese propaganda will be careful about negative reporting on issues related to the KMT, because when it comes to elections in Taiwan nowadays, official China does not want to hurt its precious Taiwanese ally.

Stefan Braig is ERCCT Managing Director and lectures at Tübingen University’s Department of Chinese and Korean Studies. Among other, he focuses on local politics in Taiwan. Image credit: CC by Richy!/Flickr.