Taipei, Taiwan March 22, 2008
On Saturday, March 22, over 250,000 overseas Taiwanese returned to Taiwan to choose their next president. Nationalist (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former mayor of Taipei, defeated Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Frank Chang-ting Hsieh by approximately 17 percent.
Among the 17 million eligible voters, overseas Taiwanese made up a significant portion of the vote for both Ma and Hsieh.
Unlike the United States, Taiwan does not permit absentee voting. All votes must be cast inside the country. To participate in the elections, voters must be 20 years of age or older and hold a Taiwan passport.
The flow of overseas Taiwanese back to the island is a tradition that was first popularized in 1996 for Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election.
Overseas Taiwanese voters are known to be an important and boisterous voice for Taiwan. Kuo Yun-Kuang, head of the KMT’s Department of Overseas Affairs, estimated as many as 50,000 pro-Ma Taiwanese living in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan returned to vote, as well as many more who live in mainland China. Other estimates are much higher.
DPP officials expected a similar number of overseas voters to support Hsieh. Officials from Los Angeles and the Bay Area of California estimated about 5,000 Taiwanese from each metropolis.
Ma’s daughters, Ma Wei-chung and Ma Yuan-chung, were among the thousands of overseas Taiwanese voters to return from the United States.
Alan Sun, the Returning Taiwanese Chairman of the U.S.-Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou Support Organization, organized a group from Los Angeles to support Ma. His daughter, 24, arrived on the day of the election to vote in her first Taiwanese election. He estimated 5,000 Taiwanese Americans from Los Angeles have returned for this election.
Merlin Yang, a self-proclaimed housewife from Los Angeles, is an energetic Hsieh supporter. She said she knows of 300 others who are in Taiwan voting for Hsieh.
Taiwan’s future relationship with China was one of the most discussed issues this election cycle. During the campaign, Ma advocated for closer economic ties with China and direct flights to the mainland. Hsieh, known as the moderate pro-independence candidate, also favored better trade relations with China however, at a more conservative rate. He attempted to distance himself from the current president, Chen Shui-bian (DPP), who has been mired in corruption scandals and plagued by a slowing economy.
Yang came back for her third presidential election “because the DPP has already won [the last two presidential elections]. But this time Taiwan could become part of China. I’m afraid of this and I’ve come back to vote.”
Jenny Chang, also from the U.S.-Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou Support Organization in LA is equally passionate about her candidate.
“Ma Ying-jeou can save the country,” she said.
Many young voters also felt compelled by election issues to return to Taiwan to cast their vote.
Lily Wang, a medical doctor from Sydney, Australia returned to vote for the first time. At 26, Wang left Taiwan when she was twelve. An enthusiastic Hsieh supporter, Wang returned “because it very important that everyone knows about Taiwan.”
As a health care professional, Wang is also here to support Taiwan to join the United Nations and World Health Organization.
Steven Lin, 27 of LA, left Taiwan at age 16 and always wanted to vote in Taiwan. Now an undergraduate student at California State Polytechnic University Pomona, Lin plans to support Ma.
Lin explained, “Taiwan needs change. The past eight years, Taiwan has gone down economically; GDP has fallen. It is important that we pick the right person. We need a true leader to save Taiwan.”
As a citizen of the United States and Taiwan, Lin is eligible to vote in both countries’ presidential elections. He does not yet know who he will support in the U.S. election but appreciates the democratic process.
“I love America and I love Taiwan as well.”
Jo L. Kent is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in China.