Taiwan's top election issue: rich earn 6 times more than poor

Taiwan, one of the four Asian Tiger nations known for its economic growth, is about to elect a new president. Voters are most concerned with economic improvement.

Jason Lee/Reuters
Supporters wave flags to welcome Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen during a campaign for the 2012 presidential election in Miaoli County, January 11. The upcoming presidential and legislative election will be held on January 14.

Taiwanese will go to the polls on Saturday to elect a president after a campaign dominated by domestic economic issues and pledges by candidates to help the newly industrialized island’s middle class.

Incumbent Ma Ying-jeou, who is seen as a careful economic planner and friendly to Taiwan’s archrival China but out of touch with common voters, is up against Tsai Ing-wen, who says the wealth gap has widened under Mr. Ma.

At this point the vote between the Nationalist Party’s Ma and his Democratic Progressive Party opponent is too close to call.

Wealth-related woes have pushed relations with China out of the spotlight for the first time in Taiwan’s 25-year democratic history. Ties with Beijing have improved since 2008 following a series of trade talks, reducing the odds of war. Now, content with current relations with China, voters, much like those in the US, are focusing on local economic improvement.

“I think the election is about the economy, furloughs, and unemployment, and jobs going over to China,” says Ted Su, a doctor in Taiwan who’s afraid of cuts in his profession. “The wealth gap has widened, but wages haven’t gone up.”

Taiwan’s economy rocketed in the 1980s with fast growth in export manufacturing, earning the island the label of one of Asia’s four economic tigers.

What worries Taiwanese workers

Unemployment hovers comfortably below 5 percent, while officials say the economy grew about 4.5 percent last year, making it the world’s 19th  largest.

But salaries rose 5.8 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to government figures, a rate that workers call too little for a comfortable life in the major cities. Companies often avert layoffs by requiring unpaid leave or free overtime.

Taiwan’s wealthiest 20 percent earn more than 6 six times the poorest 20 percent, the government announced earlier this year. The statistic has wormed its way into the political dialogue, as voters look to their government for answers.

“The issue is wealth distribution, not economic growth,” says Hsu Yung-ming, a political scientist with Soochow University in Taipei. “The wealth distribution problem has worsened, as it has in a lot of other countries.”

Two parties, one mission

Mr. Ma, a Harvard graduate and former justice minister, says he has kept the economy on track since taking office in 2008 despite the intrusions of global issues that have hurt high-tech and machinery exports.

He raised the minimum wage on Jan. 1 and last year pledged higher subsidies for farmers. In 2009 his government spent billions on remedial stimulus packages. Sixteen deals with economic powerhouse China since 2008 also have brought billions of US dollars to the island, he argues.

Those measures don’t cut it, his rival charges. Her party formed in the 1980s under an umbrella of populist causes to take on the Nationalists after decades of authoritarian rule.

Tsai charges that the deals with China, worth billions of US dollars to the local economy, have helped business owners but not common people. She wants to develop a potentially huge alternative energy sector to add jobs and stoke local economies so younger people need not come to Taipei for work.

“The government has to do something so rural areas are more attractive to younger people,” her spokeswoman Hsiao Bi-khim says. “Their innovation, creativity and energy can come back into these areas for balanced development around the country.”

Agreements with China may bring Taiwan dangerously close to a longtime political and military rival, she adds. China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and insists that the two sides eventually reunify.

Posturing to win new voters

With old pro-China and anti-China voter factions in the background this year, the two major candidates have geared their campaigns to chase young, first-time, and swing voters worried about wealth.

Mr. Ma bills himself as a corruption buster whose hard line on clean government has saved money compared to his predecessor -- opposition ex-president Chen Shui-bian, who is serving a 17.5-year prison term for graft. His supporters call Ms. Tsai a critic with no new ideas for reshaping the economy.

Opponents label Mr. Ma more a scholar than a rainmaker, putting off common people who expect more action on jobs and wealth. He lacks a “scorecard” of economic achievements, Ms. Tsai’s spokeswoman charges.

Taiwanese have directly elected a president every four years since 1996, after the island once ruled single-handedly by the Nationalists consummated about a decade of democratic reforms.

Voters, as many as 18 million, will separately elect a 113-seat parliament on Saturday. The Nationalists expect to hold their current majority. 

Most voters, being on the edge about the economy, will look past personalities to bigger issues, says George Tsai, a political scientist with Chinese Cultural University in Taipei. “I think policies are the major concerns,” he says. “The rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer.”

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