I was invited to attend the final presidential TV debates this afternoon up at the PTV studios in Neihu. Chenbl and I took the MRT out to Nangang and then up the Neihu line to Huzhou Station, which is now surrounded by a lot more nice new apartment buildings than I remember from the last time I was out there. It seems the MRT really does make a difference.
After a bowl of noodles at a nearby shop, we walked through the drizzle up slippery sidewalks lined with policemen to PTV and waited at a barricade while the candidates’ vehicles swept past up the hill. Some truant reporters were yelling at the policemen to let them through NOW, but the cops told them they had to wait like everyone else until the motorcades had passed. The reporters didn’t think much of this.
We walked up by the protest groups and through the layers of reporters into the studios, where we were shown to some sofas in the lobby featuring some snacks and cute little bottles of water, and waited while the other guests showed up. Each candidate could invite 25 people. These included some middle-aged women, an elderly fellow from Taichung, a portly photographer from Penghu, and the head of some government office. After about half and hour, we were led into the studio and sat down in folding chairs (Chenbl, not being an official guest, had to stay in the lobby where he could watch the debate on TV with the reporters there). I was seated right in the center of the central section, just behind King Pu-tsung and two rows behind Vice President Siew, Premier Wu and the first lady. One of the officials in the row in front of me was using a tablet computer.
I chatted with the old guy from Taichung, mostly in Taiwanese with some Mandarin thrown in here and there, until we both realized that we were the only ones in the room talking and that we really should shut up. The announcer appeared at her podium and called the three candidates on stage, to general applause. The cameraman counted us down to the brash opening music of the opening segment, and then the debate started.
After the opening statements, all of which included saying “Hello everyone” in as many dialects as possible, the candidates were called on to answer questions from various cultural and social groups. I won’t get into all the specific questions here, as that will be the topic of discussion on many other sites. President Ma was in the center, flanked by People First Party Chairman James Soong on the left and Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ying-wen on the right. While discussing the various topics, all of the candidates managed to fit in little political jibes at each other, but they didn’t really get into it, as all of their answers were limited to a minute and a half, after which their mic would be turned off and they would be left muttering to themselves while the announcer said “Next!”
We had a ten-minute break, during which I grabbed some water and chatted with Premier Wu a bit in the line for the bathroom, and then the second part of the debate began. When the candidates appeared on stage this time, it was very clear by listening to the applause just which section of the audience had been invited by which candidate. In this part, each candidate was allowed to pose a minute’s worth of questions to the other two candidates, and they’d each have two minutes to answer. Now we were really getting into it. Ma had opened with an attack on the recent Yu Chang controversy involving Tsai during her time as vice premier, and he returned to this at a couple of points, but mostly he kept pointing to his record and quoting relevant statistics. At a couple of points, when it was his turn to ask questions, he would call on Tsai to answer this or that accusation without addressing any question to Soong, who, when it came his turn to “answer”, said, “Here we go again!” to general laughter. It almost seemed as if he wasn’t taking himself very seriously as a candidate.
Tsai seemed subdued, almost distressed, something that didn’t come across in the debates I watched on TV last time. She issued a rare smile or two, but on the whole she gave the impression that she felt she’d been wronged, possibly due to all of the recent accusations, or possibly a head cold. Ma and Soong both countered her charges with numbers, and there was a lot of “Yes your administration accomplished that but it was my administration’s groundwork that let you do it” going on in all directions. Soong, when answering a question about high housing prices, said, “You do realize that Taipei is pretty much the only place this is happening, right? Man, you two you have lived in Taipei for too long!” He wasn’t a comedic foil, though; he brought both candidates to task on various subjects, and chided them for wasting efforts on what he called “senseless political bickering”. Ma, I felt, did better this time around than during the first debates, though that might have been because I was in the room instead of just watching on TV. But he stayed on message, and seemed more confident and assured than last time, though none of the candidates avoided at least a couple of verbal stumbles.
Finally, we had the closing statements, and the cameraman told us we were clear. “I thought that went pretty well,” I told King, who agreed. Ma walked over to thank us for coming, and I chatted with him for a bit before he left. Outside, the rain continued, and we walked back down the hill for some more noodles before taking the MRT back downtown, and then home.