Taiwan local polls: The economic and political lessons

December 02, 2014 13:56
Ko Wen-je celebrates victory with supporters after he was elected mayor of Taipei,. Photo: Getty Images

Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT) was routed in five out of six mayoral races in last weekend's elections, a clear sign that many of the island's residents have lost faith in the Ma Ying-jeou administration.

Economic factors played a major part in the show of disapproval for the ruling regime, which was also battered in other local polls for lower-level officials. 

The island nation's economy expanded at an annual rate of 3-4 percent in the past decade -- way better than those of several advanced nations -- but the benefits haven't trickled down to all the people, especially the working class.

Taiwan was in the 18th position out of 144 countries and regions in a competitiveness chart compiled by the Harvard Business School's Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, but in terms of wage level, it was in the 60th place.

Data from Taiwan's cabinet also show that from 2000-2013 the island’s average wage saw a paltry annual increase of 0.93 percent (from NT$33,953 in 2000 to NT$38,288 last year). Factoring in the annual inflation rate of 1.04 percent, the real growth has been negative.

Average monthly wage for college graduates in Taiwan stalled at around NT$22,000 (US$710) in recent years, while by comparison a job starter in Hong Kong could earn around HK$13,500 (US$1,740) per month in 2012.

Direct comparison between Taiwan and Hong Kong may be unfair given the difference in costs of housing, transportation and other daily necessities in the two places, but the yawning gap still tells us something about how the ordinary Taiwanese are finding themselves stretched.

Harsh new reality

A big part of Taiwan's economic problem has to do with its overreliance on original equipment manufacturing, where it has lost ground to mainland China as well as several Southeastern Asian nations. As factories suffer from rising costs, the job market is in a state of fatigue.

Ma had pinned hopes on free-trade deals with Beijing but a crucial services sector legislation was held up following massive student protests earlier this year.

Many Taiwanese youth don't trust the Chinese Communist Party across the strait and thus oppose any deals perceived as Beijing’s conspiracy to take over the island through economic means.

Given this situation, Taiwan's caution and reluctance to find its own place amidst the region's changing trade and economic landscape -- largely driven by China -- is proving costly to the island and holding back an improvement in people's living standards.

Also, many have had enough of the see-saw of power between the blue camp (KMT) and the green camp (Democratic Progressive Party), both of which failed to do the job right.

KMT seeks to enhance economic ties with China, an agenda that many Taiwan citizens still resist. In the meantime, the opposition DPP's radical, pro-independence stance and its inadequacy during its time in power has also made voters feel insecure.

All this forms the backdrop of independent candidate Ko Wen-je's (柯文哲) victory in the Taipei mayoral election.

As the capital city's first-ever mayor from outside the established political parties, Ko's win points to a changing game as Taiwan prepares for its presidential election in 2016.

With his victory, the traditional blue-green rotation in Taiwan’s political sphere and the KMT’s long-time monopoly of the top job in Taipei is effectively replaced by a streak of white. Ko is a physician and chairman of the Department of Traumatology at the National Taiwan University Hospital, and he doesn’t belong to any party.

Rooting for change

An amateur politician by any standard, Ko stirred up quite a sensation with his unique style of "straight talking, no-nonsense" approach. Media reports have said that his team refused to organize large-scale rallies or gatherings to canvass supporters, as Ko prefers to talk to voters in person to glean their thoughts.

Although the DPP has backed his candidature, he chose to maintain his distance in order to retain his image of neutrality.

Furthermore, it was said that Ko wouldn't accept any donation over NT$100,000, a move aimed at avoiding future interference from major donors.

Many voters also buy his pragmatic approach when it comes to the cross-strait relations. Ko told supporters that existing bilateral forums and dialogues between Taipei and mainland cities - set up by the KMT - will be continued as usual but he will make sure the benefits wouldn't just flow to a few politicians.

Ko's major rival in the polls was Sean Lien Sheng-wen (連勝文), whose father Lien Chan (連戰) is the KMT’s honorary chairman and a former Taiwan vice president. Some attribute Ko’s sweeping victory to the inadequacy of his rival who is always living in the shadow of his father and is seen as a perfect example of the second generation rich who was born with a silver spoon and has no idea how hard it is for the ordinary folks to make a living.

Yeh Kuo-hao (葉國豪), a Taiwan native teaching liberal studies at the Hang Seng Management College, told Hong Kong Economic Journal’s EJ Global that the junior Lien is never short of questionable incidents -- the accusations range from draft dodging and election bribery, as well as a high-flying lifestyle.

Thus, many Taipei voters, especially young people who long for change, harbored profound negative feelings and feared that he would continue with the KMT’s policies to maintain the status quo. Others also alleged that his abilities are unproven as he has never held any government post in the past.

Whether Ko can live up to people's expectations is another story but for the time being he can afford to bask in the limelight and formulate his own vision for Taiwan's capital city amid the honeymoon period following his landslide victory.

KMT's rout in the Taipei mayoral election and other local elections is a clear sign to Beijing that people cherish Taiwan’s independence and democracy without China’s string-pulling, and that Taiwanese want a fair and equal share of the economic pie.

The election outcome marks a clear no-confidence vote on KMT and Beijing. As for Hongkongers, who are struggling in their quest for political reforms, they can only watch with envy the remarkable show of democracy in Taiwan.

-- Contact the writer at [email protected]


Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou attends a rally to canvass votes for KMT candidate Sean Lien in Taipei mayoral election. Lien suffered defeat at the hands of independent candidate Ko Wen-je.
Sean Lien fought a hard campaign, but young voters were disheartened by his image of a "second generation rich". Photo: Reuters

EJ Insight writer