As soon as 2012 arrived, the following two weeks were fraught with election anxiety. It was a quiet anxiety that had existed over many months, but then boiled over into palpable action. Suddenly the campaign trucks were out with their blaring horns, the banners were unfurled, the buses were emblazoned with candidates holding hands, and the rallies begun. It was strange to see politics moved off the TV and suddenly right there before our eyes, especially for an important presidential election in a relatively young democracy.

There were two main candidates: Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

Ma Ying-jeou is the current president and was the incumbent candidate from the KMT (Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party). This is known as the “blue party.” Tsai Ing-wen was the leader of the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party), the other big party in Taiwan. The DPP was founded in 1986 on a platform for independence from China, and claims to identify more with the local Taiwanese spirit (it calls itself the “green party,” alluding to itself as more grassroots and with the people). Both parties seem to have stayed away from identifying with the color red, as it is generally symbolic of China. The KMT is the party that lost the Civil War in China back in 1949 and retreated to Taiwan. It ruled Taiwan with oppressive martial law until the late 1980s when Taiwan started to democratize, with the first presidential elections in 1996. The fact that Taiwan was holding presidential elections caused China to react by conducting missile tests in the Taiwan straits, to try to sway voters toward certain candidates. The U.S. responded with the Taiwan Relations Act, sending aircraft carriers to the area.

Sixteen years later, China still has its fists clenched when Taiwanese election season rolls around. They worry about a DPP candidate in office because of the pro-independence stance. It’s funny because the KMT is really the lesser of two evils in their eyes—the KMT is still the party who retreated to Taiwan in the first place, throwing it into such contentious status. But China has kept its eye on elections, hoping for a KMT majority, because they know that the KMT is okay with the status quo and with not agitating for real independence. Every one of the presidents since 1996 has been KMT except for Chen Shui-bian of the DPP from 2000 to 2008. Chen Shui-bian was embroiled in corruption and brought down public support for the DPP.  So Tsai Ing-wen had a hard battle to fight.

Mr. Ma, as they call him, was born in Hong Kong and attended Harvard Law School back in the day. This is a big deal to people in Taiwan (the Harvard name), and often mentioned in support of his candidacy. He also met and married his wife, Chow Mei-qing, in New York. It’s funny to think of a presidential candidate spending so many formative years and life events abroad (even his kids live abroad) and the home country not really making a fuss. Mr. Ma’s wife, Ms. Chow, is apparently adored by some of the public. They call her “Michelle’s sister” in part because they both wore dresses by Taiwanese designer Jason Wu. It’s also because Ms. Chow has always been very intent on her own career and keeping her own lifestyle, despite being catapulted into the spotlight and the responsibilities of a first lady. She didn’t quit her high-ranking bank job when her husband won the presidency (though later had to for political reasons). She wanted to keep taking public transportation and do her own shopping—crowds of people often formed around her on the Taipei metro. According to my Chinese teacher, a lot of Ma’s support comes from people who simply admire his wife. According to Taiwanese women, a lot of Ma’s support also comes from people who think he’s a shuai ge (handsome).

Tsai Ing-wen is Taiwan’s first female presidential candidate, and yet no one made a huge deal about it. Some of her campaign posters and flags were pink or yellow and proclaimed that she was going to be the first female president of Taiwan, but not many voters talked about that as being a major point—and neither did the media. Ms. Tsai is of Hakka origin and was born in the south of Taiwan (a DPP stronghold). She got her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics, and is regarded and respected as an academic candidate. Of course, The Economist is the one who decided to call her “owlish” (while not commenting on the many men with glasses who are part of Taiwanese politics) an interesting reminder that Western news sources can project gender bias more than local Taiwan ones might. Tsai is also 55 and unmarried, which in the U.S. would probably lead to all sorts of irrelevant speculation, but here was only briefly mentioned by some smear campaigns that only served to make the public sympathize with her.

There was also a third candidate, James Soong, originally KMT but running as an independent. The big worry was that his supporters in the KMT would take away votes from Ma, but he wasn’t expected to get more than 15% of the vote.

Both Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ying-wen have the character “Ying” in their names. Actually, Tsai’s name literally translated just means “English.” The “Ying” is the character used for “English” and for “England”…you might say it corresponds to the sound “Eng,” though I don’t know whether that is a happy coincidence or not. Anyway, the media has been calling this election a “Double Ying Showdown” as a result.

The big issue of the election turned out to be relations with mainland China. Because of Taiwan’s economic interests related to the mainland, many people feared that a DPP win would mean a weak economy down the line. Tsai has been criticized for not adequately addressing that question. Tsai’s party mainly focused on attacking the KMT as the “big bad wolf” working for business and against the locals. The DPP carried this metaphor by distributing 100,000 DPP piggy banks around the island which actually raised millions of dollars.

The KMT distributed red plastic amulets that contain a flag of Taiwan and say “ping an 平安”, or “peace and safety,” emphasizing his better relations with China and the recent emphasis on economic safety for Taiwan’s future. Apparently, because there is no absentee voting in Taiwan, people flew back from Hong Kong, mainland China, and even further countries just to cast their vote (most overseas Taiwanese are in favor of Ma). Even the Taiwanese founder of HTC came out right before the election to tell the public to vote for Ma.

We could hear campaign trucks blasting the weeks before the election, and they got less novel and more annoying very fast. The phenomenon of the campaign truck is interesting: a truck using campaign money to just drive around all day, emblazoned with the candidate’s face on the side, blaring a combination of music, rallying cries, and political attacks against the opposition in an annoying voice. I can’t imagine who would actually be swayed to vote with this truck, especially when you are biking and it cuts in front of you.

Both candidates have sort of vague slogans (“Go Taiwan” from the KMT, “Taiwan Next” from the DPP). Campaign ads that sprung up around the city:

Tsai Ing-wen…they affectionately call her “little Ing”
At the top, Ma and his running mate doing their classic fist (always makes us laugh), and at bottom, Tsai appealing to Taiwan’s soft side
Not an ad, but something from a Taiwanese friend on my newsfeed showing the three candidates when they were younger (left to right: Ma, Tsai, Soong)
One of my favorite Ma ads; Mr. Ma and his running mate, doing the side hug and the fist pump, with a rainbow across the sky…on buses everywhere

We also had the opportunity to go to some rallies. The ones in Yilan seemed mostly attended by senior citizens, which was interesting because they chose to have some breakdancing youth as part of the entertainment.

I also had the luck of hearing through the grapevine (my roommate’s Chinese teacher’s husband) that Ma Ying-jeou was going to be campaigning in Yilan at 10am the Wednesday before the election, just 5 min walk from my school. I waited with a bunch of senior citizens, and sure enough, a line of cars with dark windows rolled up, he got out, and everyone went crazy crowding around him. I managed to push through the crowd, shake his hands, and exchange hellos before I got pushed back again by the crowd. It was exciting to meet the current president, just a few blocks away from where I work! Interestingly, when I went back to the teacher’s office and told my fellow teachers, some responded by saying, “I can’t believe you shook his hand! How can you support him? You should support the DPP!” I told them I just shook his hand because he was the president, not for any reasons of support. “Wouldn’t you still want to shake your current president’s hand?” I asked. They said, “Definitely not.” People here generally haven’t talked about politics much, but the month before the election, suddenly feelings were running high.

President Ma
Accidentally Taiwanese KMT hipsters

We also attended rallies in Taipei the Friday night before elections on Saturday. As fair and unbiased Fulbrighters, we attended both rallies as observers. The DPP one was in a huge stadium and there was so much interesting swag. It definitely felt like there were more theatrics than your average rally in the U.S.

piggy bank t-shirts for Tsai
Tsai’s slogan is “Taiwan Next”
Andy Warhol-esque Tsai posters
Tsai bobbleheads
cartoon Tsai shirts sold by official DPP organizers
Not sure why the Beatles is relevant to Tsai’s campaign..maybe because her name means “English”?

Next we went to the KMT rally. The address given to me for this one was “the Presidential Palace” so we went to that, but it was quiet and empty. We went to ask the security guard for directions. Instead of asking “where is the rally?” my friend asked, “Where is the presidential palace?” and the guard, always serious, cracked a smile and just pointed to the huge building behind him. Then we got it together and asked him about the rally, and found it a few blocks away, swelling with noise. We came just in time to see Ma ascend the stage and give a speech. It was terribly crowded and we entered from near the stage, so we could barely breathe (and what we could breathe was often less than ideal-smelling). At one point, I turned around and realized the old women behind me had brought their dog and was holding it (luckily in a doggy bag) right on my head. They were debating whether or not they should let it out…luckily they didn’t. It was also cute to see many of the people, despite the obviously crowded situation, still acting very polite in a very Taiwanese way. And after about 30 minutes of discomfort, we did get to see Ma up close again:

Confetti and streamers at the end of the KMT rally. Ma’s slogan was “Taiwan jia you,” which literally means “Add oil Taiwan,” an idiom for “Go Taiwan!”
Ma’s campaign incorporated a knockoff of the Facebook “like” thumbs-up into most of his ads, and KMT supporters wore these headbands with Facebook likes on them. I’m not sure if they’re just wearing them because they like Facebook, because they like Ma, or both. But it’s funny to see senior citizens taking to the streets with these on.

Both candidates, Ma and Tsai, have a demeanor that seems very different than candidate who would be favored in the U.S. We like candidates with charisma and pep, and academic accomplishment is not as big of an issue (sometimes it can even be considered an issue). Taiwan likes these characters that Western media describe as “owlish” or bookish, and it likes rallies where in fact the candidate’s demeanor is calm and resembling someone who just woke up from a nap. We were so surprised by the difference in what is expected from the public image of a candidate in Taiwan and in America.

On election day, about 75% of Taiwanese people voted, an impressive number (though citizens 20 and over are all expected to register to vote). Taiwanese people say this was actually a bit less than in previous years.Within 4 hours they had the results, and President Ma had won with almost 52%. Tsai only won three counties (including Yilan, which is known for being green), and less than 46% of the vote. Soong got less than 3%. On TV, Ma gave a very docile victory speech, perhaps trying not to antagonize the DPP supporters (we saw, when the camera panned to them, that they were bawling in yellow ponchos in the pouring rain). Tsai gave a quiet and calm concession speech, and also resigned from leadership of the DPP.

People say that China (and America) breathed a sigh of relief after this election, since the status quo will probably not be upset by the KMT. Many Taiwanese people I talked to actually didn’t really care for either candidate, as they felt both stood on shaky ground in some areas. But in the end they still cast a vote, a spur of the moment (or the week) vote. So maybe those campaign trucks do make a difference.

Sun Yat-sen’s famous three principles of the people included Minzu民族, Minquan民權, and Minsheng民生 (Nationalism, government by the people, and government for the people). The last one is sometimes interpreted as in favor of socialism, and the second as in favor of democracy, depending on whether you ask the ROC or the PRC (both claim Sun as a founding father). Taiwan’s election shows a fulfillment, at least, of the principle of involving the people, renmin 人民, in creating a government. That itself, with every election, is a threat to China’s legitimacy over the island.