21 October 2016
The KMT's unpopularity will put Hung Hsiu-chu (left) at a disadvantage against Tsai Ing-wen. Photos: CNA, Bloomberg
The KMT's unpopularity will put Hung Hsiu-chu (left) at a disadvantage against Tsai Ing-wen. Photos: CNA, Bloomberg

‘Little Pepper’ faces Ph.D in Taiwan presidential election

The two main candidates in Taiwan’s presidential election in January will, for the first time, both be women.

One is “Little Pepper”, so nicknamed for her small stature and sharp tongue, and the other, the daughter of a wealthy family who has a Ph.D. and several other degrees.

Hung Hsiu-chu, 67, vice-chairwoman of the Legislative Yuan, is the only person to have put herself forward as a candidate of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT).

At the weekend, she passed the 30 per cent threshold in three primary polls, with an average approval rating of 46.2 per cent.

In the absence of any other candidate, she will be approved by the party’s central standing committee on Wednesday and a national party convention on Friday.

Her opponent will be Tsai Ing-wen, 58, the candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who lost to Ma Ying-jeou in the 2012 election. He received 51.6 percent of the popular vote, and she, 45.6 percent.

Tsai is the strong favourite, because of Ma’s deep unpopularity.

In local elections in November, the KMT won only one of the six major cities, with five going to the DPP, which won 48 percent of the popular vote, against 41 percent for the KMT.

There is a third candidate, Nori Shih Ming-teh, 74, a former chairman of the DPP who spent 15 years in prison from 1962 to 1977 for advocating independence for Taiwan.

Without a party organization behind him, Shih has no chance of victory.

What Taiwan’s voters want is someone competent and honest who can run the country efficiently and manage relations with the mainland smoothly but keep the giant neighbor at a distance.

“My father was a KMT soldier from Jiangsu, and we, too, had to vote for the KMT while he was alive,” taxi driver Wang Chao-hsing said.

“But, now he has passed away, I can vote for whomever I choose. Even though I am from a mainland family, I will vote for Tsai next January.

“Ma and those around him are incompetent and indecisive. We have seen it on many occasions – such as the scandal with the tainted oil in the food of Ting Hsin [International Group].

“The four brothers [who control the company] were briefly detained and paid a fine but did not spend a night in prison. What an injustice!”

This is a common complaint against Ma and his government – their failure to address the main concerns of ordinary people.

These include soaring property prices in the main cities, a rising wealth gap and average incomes that have not increased for 13 years.

Using figures from the Finance Ministry, Chu Jing-yi, a researcher at Academia Sinica, found that the richest 1 per cent in Taiwan owned 11 per cent of the gross domestic product in 2012, up from 6 per cent in 1977.

The richest 10 per cent owned 36 per cent, up from 23 per cent in 1977.

“The KMT is the party of the rich, big business and developers,” secondary school teacher Lin Ming-yi said.

“So it will not raise property taxes, which are low by international standards. Property is the main investment of the rich, with interest rates so low.

“I am not sure if Tsai and the DPP would raise the taxes. But we have to give them a chance, after eight years of KMT rule.

“She is likely to get a two-thirds majority in the parliament after the January vote.

“The DPP represents the common people more.”

Where Tsai is most vulnerable is her policy regarding the mainland.

She has repeatedly said that, as president, she would maintain the status quo and peaceful relations with Beijing – the preference of nearly 80 per cent of Taiwan people.

But she does not accept the “1992 consensus” – which holds that there is one China but room for different interpretations of what this means.

Beijing insists that this is a precondition for negotiations and clearly supports the KMT candidate.

It was this ambiguity that cost Tsai the 2012 election.

“Little Pepper” will attack her on this issue, saying that relations with the mainland are critical.

Taiwan’s economy increasingly depends on the mainland, which is its biggest export market, supplier of tourists and students and a growing investor.

Hung will say that these relations are too important to leave to someone whom Beijing does not trust.

But the anger against the KMT is too strong, and Hung too little known as a public figure.

Tsai will win – and the electorate will judge her and her government on their competence and concrete results, not their slogans.

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Hong Kong-based journalist and author. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.

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