Taiwan election: Wild, wooly, and partly a referendum on China

The Taipei mayor's race is the most watched, but there are 10,000 offices to fill on Nov. 29. The races are marked by mud-slinging and new debates over Chinese nationalism and Taiwanese identity. 

Pichi Chuang/Reuters
Supporters of Taipei mayoral candidate Ko Wen-je take part during his campaign rally ahead of the local elections in Taipei November 23, 2014. The local elections take place on November 29.

Taiwan’s young democracy puts down deeper roots with every election cycle, and the island holds an important vote this weekend with 20,000 candidates for more than 10,000 offices.

The most watched election is for mayor of Taipei, where candidate Ko Wen-je is causing panic in Taiwan's ruling party and making Chinese leaders in Beijing nervous.

A newcomer to politics, Mr. Ko has become a lighting rod for debates over national identity and traditional values in Taiwan. The independent candidate is receiving prominent media coverage, which he has been using to step outside mainstream politics and challenge the establishment.

The quirky medical doctor has stayed comfortably on top of opinion polls while surviving a barrage of accusations and crude smears – such as charges that family loyalty to Japan several generations ago makes him unfit to be mayor -- that have questioned his character and career as one of the island's leading surgeons. 

Meanwhile, Ko's opponent, Sean Lien, may be fumbling what once looked like a sure bet for the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Fighting to retain control of a city long a bastion of loyalists for his party, Mr. Lien has run a high-profile campaign with a long to-do list. But emotional and sometimes divisive interventions from KMT elders, including his own father, have revived partisan conflicts over how Taiwanese identify their state and society. 

Taiwan's vote on Nov. 29 has consequences far beyond the boundaries of local government, and is more significant than local elections often seem in other democracies.

For example, it will be the first opportunity since mass street protests earlier this year for Taiwan’s 18 million voters to register their judgment on the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou and his China-friendly policies. Observers predict a high turnout, approaching those of presidential elections, which exceed 70 percent.

These polls have unprecedented scale. Voters will choose across nine levels of government for almost very popularly elected official on the island except for the president and legislature – from thousands of village and neighborhood chiefs to county magistrates and big city mayors.

In the six largest municipalities, which encompass more than 60 percent of the population, the races will foreshadow the presidential contest barely a year away and gauge the strength of support for the two main political parties.

If Taiwan's democracy puts down deeper roots in this election, analysts say, it could be seen in a shift in power from the central government -- to key city and county offices and possibly into “green” or opposition hands.

Such a re-alignment in favor of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its allies would send a message to Beijing and beyond that Taiwanese are determined to shape their own future and not drift into economic and political integration with China.

Yet the core issues for Nov. 29 are sometimes less about local government and more about how to interpret Taiwan's modern political history, including its conflicting views of national identity and the personalities of the candidates.

Once again, elections are raising old conflicts between an imported Chinese nationalism and an indigenous Taiwanese identity that was suppressed by the Chinese Nationalists who fled here after China’s mid-century civil war.

Usually, these are the kind of questions candidates prefer to avoid: they are divisive and cannot be resolved by local government. But for a democracy struggling to survive in China's shadow, they often seem unavoidable in the heat of the campaign.

This is especially so in Taipei, the capital of the Republic of China and rival to the People's Republic of China in Beijing.

With approval ratings hovering near record lows, President Ma's administration has all but lost public trust on matters ranging from protection of the nation's food supply to unaffordable property prices, falling incomes, and a policy of building relations with China through a series of compromises and agreements.

Not all the links with China are seen as overtly harmful to Taiwan's interests, but they are perceived as failing to bring promised economic and political benefits.

The marquee race on Nov. 29 is for Taipei mayor, an office widely viewed as a stepping stone to the presidency. Ma himself was mayor of Taipei. Only once has a non-KMT candidate won the capital since elections for mayor resumed 20 years ago. That was Chen Shui-bian, who faced two candidates from a divided KMT who split the party's vote. Chen went on to become president six years later.

While both leading candidates in Taipei are political novices, the similarities end there. Voters have a distinct choice.

Ko is the sometimes unpredictable and unconventional surgeon from a humble background, running nominally as a non-partisan candidate, but with the quiet backing of the DPP.

Lien is the young, establishment figure with a US law degree and international business experience. But his background of wealth and privilege evokes fears that he will perpetuate the rule of a rapacious, China-friendly oligarchy that is the object of much popular resentment.

Unlike his opponent, Ko has purchased no media advertisements and spent less money than any previous major candidate. Yet he attracts media attention and receives much of his financing from individual contributions over the Internet.

Win or lose, Ko's supporters say he has broken the mold in leading a non-partisan “opposition alliance” of both 'blue' or KMT, and 'green' or opposition supporters, as well as a younger generation of activists who keep their distance from these two established political camps.

Notable among these new activists are supporters of the Sunflower movement, a group of mostly student protesters who took over the legislature for 24 days earlier this year to block a trade deal with China and who coalesced popular discontent outside the usual partisan lines.

DPP leaders say they hoped to out-maneuver the KMT by not entering their own candidate in Taipei and lowering their party profile at a time when voters have lost patience with partisan politics.

Ko is “smart enough to realize that the national mood has changed,” wrote Liu Shih-chung of the pro-opposition Taiwan Brain Trust in the Taipei Times. “Exhausted by partisan disputes and extremism regarding the unification or independence dichotomy and ethnic division; the country wants its politicians to work together and compromise.”

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