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2008 State of the Nation Survey

Politics Step Aside for Real Issues

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For the first time in five years, the Taiwanese are more concerned about the economy than political infighting. Over half see the upcoming presidential election as a turning point for the future.

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Politics Step Aside for Real Issues

By Sherry Lee
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Over the past six months all of East Asia has been bathed in the fervor of elections. From Japan to Australia, Thailand to South Korea, elections have indicated a surprisingly consistent sentiment: politics should step aside as bread-and-butter issues come to the fore.

CommonWealth Magazine’s 2008 State of the Nation Survey shows a similar trend.

A full 72.4 percent of the citizenry, nine percent higher than last year, is dissatisfied with the economy, marking a new high over the last five years . An even higher 85 percent is alarmed by the wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots, a sentiment that has grown palpably stronger over the past two State of the Nation Surveys . In general, over half of the population is unhappy with the quality of the overall living environment in Taiwan at present .

With what degree of confidence do Taiwanese people regard both themselves and society as a whole? Pessimism is also at a five-year high, as 33 percent of those surveyed see their economic situation worsening over the coming year, while only 12 percent feel it will get better . And there is a yawning gap between the 42 percent of respondents that are pessimistic about Taiwan’s future development and the 25 percent that remain sanguine about the future .

When CommonWealth Magazine conducted our first State of the Nation Survey in 1994, 55 percent of those surveyed were optimistic about Taiwan’s future development, compared with 15 percent that took a dimmer view. Although the proportions nearly equaled out following the transfer of power to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2000, a plurality of citizens was nevertheless confident about the nation’s future.

This year marks the first time in 15 years that the percentage of those taking a contrarian view outweigh optimists by more than 15 percent (nearly 17 percent, in fact), one indicator contributing to the lowest confidence index ever measured.

Taiwan on Downward Slide, Say 72 Percent

Seven and one-half years on since the change-over from KMT to DPP rule, 72 percent of the public feels that Taiwan is on a downward trajectory. In contrast, fewer than 10 percent think the country is on the way up, while 13 percent find things about the same as before.

Cross-referencing political party support with this issue shows that 38 percent of DPP supporters believe that Taiwan has taken an upward trajectory for the better over the past seven and one-half years, a higher percentage among that demographic than the 25 percent that see it on a downward slope. This demonstrates that die-hard supporters of the DPP generally have a positive estimation of President Chen Shui-bian’s administration.

However, more than 90 percent of pan-Blue supporters feel that Taiwan has gone downhill over this time.

So examining these past seven and one-half years, in which areas has Taiwan improved, and in which ones has it slid backwards the most?

Worst Areas: Economics, Wealth Gap

People’s responses reflect their most immediate concerns. When queried about items of improvement, most respondents answered ’don’t know’ or ’no improvement,’ while the only area of improvement cited to a significant extent was ’freedom of speech.’ In contrast, responses regarding the areas in which Taiwan regressed the most were fast and furious, with 52 percent noting economic decline, followed by the wealth gap (18.7 percent) and education and culture (18.6 percent).

Witnessing the deterioration of democracy, bitter partisan squabbles, and poor leadership ability, many citizens have begun shifting their focus from such philosophical and ideological issues as unification versus independence toward more practical areas such as their wallets and livelihoods.

Respondents rank economic decline as the biggest current threat to Taiwan. This marks a shift from the past five years, during which the public viewed bitter political fighting as the biggest threat facing the people. Thus, this year was the first time that economics took over the top position of concern from party wrangling .

Who’s Accountable?

Nearly 30 percent of respondents believe that the ruling DPP should be held accountable for Taiwan’s downturn, with 19 percent specifically pinning the tail on President Chen. Combined, that makes just under half of the public that holds the DPP administration responsible. Meanwhile, only 3.4 percent lay the blame at the feet of the opposition parties. ’What’s surprising is that the people don’t hold the opposition parties responsible enough,’ says Chihjen Sheng, Soochow University professor of political science.

With the presidential election looming this year, 54 percent of respondents see it as a turning point for Taiwan’s future. Still, another 30 percent disagree.

Several university professors offer that Taiwan faces something other than a choice of political parties or politicians, but that of a ’political style’ and ’cultural quality’ palatable to the people.

Queried on which issues leaders must make top priority, 64 percent of respondents answered ’promoting economic prosperity’ without hesitation; this was followed by improving the quality of education and narrowing the wealth gap, respectively. These three areas also happen to be the three aspects the people feel have been most lacking over the last seven and one-half years .

People Seek More Open Cross-strait Policy

The public has shown an increasingly pragmatic attitude toward cross-strait developments over the years. For instance, 63 percent of those polled feel that maintaining the status quo is the best approach to long-term cross-strait relations, while those in a hurry for either independence or unification remain distinct minorities .

While the center of gravity of attitudes towards cross-strait relations remains solidly in the status quo band of the spectrum, 52 percent of the people would still like to see the government take a more open policy approach to China, while another 20 percent favor keeping policy the same and 13 percent support a more restrictive approach. Regarding the opening of direct cross-strait transportation links, those conditionally favoring links plus those anxious to see links established as soon as possible combine for over 70 percent of those surveyed .

These responses show that the public would like to see those in charge of government policy set aside disputes over political sovereignty for the moment in favor of a pragmatic search for cross-strait peace and economic approaches favorable to both sides.

Ironically, less than three percent of the people place entry or non-entry into the United Nations among the top priorities for leaders to resolve. This stands in stark contrast to the fervor with which mainline politicians are pushing the issue and shows that most of the public feels that it is a false issue.

Presidential Qualities

Respondents indicate that their priorities in selecting a president are national policy (35 percent), morals and character (28 percent), and mettle (12 percent). Other factors such as party affiliation, charisma, stance on unification or independence, or family background (i.e. native-born Taiwanese or mainland Chinese) did not figure highly, indicating that people are becoming increasingly pragmatic in their voting tendencies.

KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou is largely playing the economy and cross-strait trade cards, while DPP nominee Frank Hsieh is working hard, despite the burden of his association with President Chen Shui-bian, to redirect the focus toward economic issues. Nevertheless, 49 percent of those surveyed indicated they did not know for certain what the candidates’ policies and philosophies for leading the nation actually were.

Clearly, the two major parties and their respective candidates could do a far better job at communicating their policy platforms.

How would people vote if the election were held tomorrow?

Forty six percent of respondents indicated they would vote for Ma Ying-jeou, compared to 12 percent for Frank Hsieh, although 23 percent said they are undecided and 5.3 percent refused to respond .

No Confidence Vote

Normally, with little separating the top two candidates in terms of qualifications and experience there would not be such a wide gap in public opinion. However, as one pundit observes, ’Now it’s not like an election between two candidates, but a popular backlash against seven years under Chen Shui-bian’s administration.’

Under cross-analysis, a clear shift in voting direction is detectable.

Among those queried that voted for Chen Shui-bian in 2004, 40 percent indicated they would vote for Frank Hsieh in the upcoming presidential election. However, 25 percent said they would switch over to the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou, while 11 percent said they do not plan to vote at all . Taken together, this points to Frank Hsieh potentially losing up to 36 percent of his ostensible support base.

Turning the spotlight on those who voted for Lien Chan in 2004, 77 percent said they will vote for Ma Ying-jeou this time, with less than one percent defecting to Hsieh; three percent do not plan to vote, and 17 percent are undecided at the moment.

This situation closely mirrors that of the recent South Korean election, where the public coalesced into ’opposition votes’ out of disgust with the administration of Roh Moo-hyun, and voting behavior did not necessarily reflect fondness or active support for a particular candidate.

By this token, Frank Hsieh is clearly suffering under the burden of association with the current DPP administration.

Ever since the initiation of Taiwan’s democratization, the issues of national identity and unification versus independence have been the two main pillars of all national elections, and the majority of citizens do admittedly have deep-seated party and national identity leanings. However, as democratization has progressed, party affiliation has lessened its grip on hearts and minds, giving rise to the question of whether younger voters with a more rational approach to elections will tip the balance one way or the other.

Younger Voters Pragmatic

In the State of the Nation Survey, CommonWealth Magazine has observed that members of the younger generation (those 20 to 29 years old) are relatively disinterested in elections, but they are more pragmatic in their standards for choosing presidential candidates than members of other generations.

Compared to the public as a whole, 49 percent of whom consider economic decline to be the greatest threat to Taiwan, young people perceive it to be an even graver threat, at a rate of 59 percent. Further, 70 percent of the younger generation believes that the top issue leaders must resolve is promoting economic prosperity, compared to 64 percent of the population on average, indicating their keener sensitivity to economics.

In spite of their outrage and indignation, young people remain politically detached. Almost 20 percent of the 20 to 29 year-old segment does not intend to vote in either the mid-January legislative election or the March presidential contest ?V seven points higher than the average across all ages . Lastly, young people are more likely to consider emigrating, at eight percent higher than the average Taiwanese .

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman


About the Survey

The 2008 CommonWealthMagazine State of the Nation Survey was conducted by telephone among Taiwanese citizens ages 18 and above, chosen via a stratified random sampling. The survey was held between December 19 and 23, 2007. A total of 1,090 valid samples were taken, with a confidence level of 95 percent and a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

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