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Overseas Voters Key to Taiwanese Presidential Election

Posted: Jan 13, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO -- With just a day to go before Taiwanese vote for their country’s next leader on January 14, polls show the two leading candidates running neck-and-neck. Which is why their parties are making a last bid attempt to lure overseas voters, including those in the Bay Area.

According to the English-language Taiwan News, incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) leads his anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rival Tsai Ing-wen, with 38.8 percent of voters backing Ma and 37.8 percent in support of Tsai. A third candidate, James Soong of the People's First Party (PFP), trails far behind.

“The KMT has arranged for buses to pick up overseas voters returning to southern and northern parts of Taiwan,” Zhong Weijun told the Bay Area-based Chinese-language news channel KTSF. “The buses will take them to join party rallies happening across Taiwan," added Zhong, who directs the San Francisco offices of Kuo Ming Tang USA.

Not to be outdone, DPP organizers have also been working to tap into voter enthusiasm. Wang Longwei, Chairman of the Silicon Valley chapter of the DPP, says his staff have “been organizing overseas voters to return home for this upcoming election for seven years,” when the DDP last held power.

According to news reports, however, despite their best efforts the number of returnees from the Bay Area has declined by nearly half since the last election in 2008, when Ma swept into power with 56 percent of the vote. KTSF noted that this year just 4,672 Taiwanese have returned home to cast their ballots, compared to 9,132 four years ago. Analysts say there could still be a last minute surge, especially in such a tight race.

Ma’s popularity derived in large measure from an electorate eager to mend ties with Beijing after two presidencies – Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian – were defined by strong anti-China policies. Recognizing the two countries’ growing economic integration, and in particular China’s rising clout on the global stage, Taiwan’s 23 million voters saw reconciliation as key to their country’s economic vitality.

Ma’s pro-business, pro-China stance also makes him the favorite of leaders in Beijing, some of whom have warned that business relations will suffer if the next president fails to acknowledge Taiwan as a part of China, which is Taiwan’s largest trade partner. Two-way trade last year rose to $12.4 billion, while visitors from the mainland climbed 6 percent to 1.6 million.

Still, after four years, voters may be looking for a change. If elected, Tsai -- who is chairwoman of the DPP -- would be the country’s first female leader, a fact that is drawing female voters away from Ma in droves. She has also softened her party’s stance on China, promising to maintain friendly cross-strait relations.

Sacramento resident Liu Wenpen, the father of California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, is one of the main DPP organizers in the state and an ardent backer of Tsai. He says he is dissatisfied with the KMT, which ruled the country from its founding in 1949 under state founder Sun Yat-sen.

“Tsai is Hakka,” Liu told KTSF, referring to the ethnic minority that immigrated to the island from the mainland and today comprise some 15 percent of the population. “She is also the first female presidential candidate,” he added. “If she wins the campaign, she will be able to give a strong voice to both of these two groups."

In this tight race, such support may make a crucial difference in determining the winner.

A survey carried out by the Sing Tao Daily, one of the largest Chinese-language dailies in the United States, found that among the 900 respondents in Los Angeles’ Chinese community, some 72 percent said they supported Ma, while 23 percent backed Tsai. Interviewees, however, hailed from regions as far flung as China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and countries in Southeast Asia. Among Taiwanese respondents only, more than 20 percent said they remained undecided.

One of the largest concentrations of overseas Taiwanese residents is in China itself. Taiwan’s China Times reported that the number of registered voters there has hit a record high as anxiety grows over the election’s outcome. Lin Qingfa, president of the Beijing Association of Taiwan-funded Enterprises (BATE), predicted that upwards of 200,000 Taiwanese may make the journey home to cast their votes.

"Returnees will be the key to the whole campaign,” said Lin.

But with so many streaming back, getting a flight home might be a problem.

According to KTSF, a return trip to Taiwan will cost travelers around $3000 to $4000, including airfare, hotel fees and daily expenses. All that assumes one can even secure a ticket, however, as this year’s election falls right around the Chinese Lunar New Year Holiday, when thousands return home to visit relatives and friends.

Taiwan-based China Airlines has been offering special “election discount” tickets, but says there just aren’t a sufficient number of seats available, reports KTSF.

For Concord resident Chen Zenming and his wife, such obstacles won’t be enough to keep them from returning home to help carry their candidate to victory. “China Air and Eva Air are the only two carriers that offer direct flights to Taiwan, but tickets have been sold out for weeks,” they told KTSF. “Our only choice is to fly to China and transfer from there, doubling our travel time.”

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