Former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui made a rare campaign appearance at a fruit orchard here on behalf of a man he first met as a student protester during a constitutional crisis more than two decades ago.
Now that protester, Lin Chia-lung, is running for mayor of Taichung, Taiwan's third-largest city, in a bellwether race in tomorrow's island-wide elections.
Mr. Lin represents a new generation of opposition leaders seeking to occupy key local government posts and to displace the China-friendly Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which is struggling to retain its local power base. A win by Lin in a KMT stronghold would be a significant morale boost ahead of the 2016 presidential elections, and in the latest polls he is ahead by more than 10 percent.
Mr. Lee, sometimes called the father of Taiwanese democracy, obligingly said some nice things about Lin.
“It's time to let the young people take over,” Lee told farmers gathered for tea. “Once or twice is enough,” he added in a casual swipe at Taichung's Mayor Jason Hu, who is running for a fourth term under the KMT banner.
Taichung is a city of 2.7 million located midway between Taiwan's main political divides. North from here is politically “blue,” where the ruling China-friendly KMT is strongest. South from here is “green,” where the Taiwan-first, nativist Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, dominates.
The city is situated at the closest point to mainland China across the Taiwan Strait, and for years has been dominated by the Nationalists. So a fall of Taichung to the “green” camp on Nov. 29 would consolidate opposition power in the geographic center of the country.
Lee's low-key endorsement at the rally in the orchard was a sign that political fortunes may be shifting in central Taiwan, where a rising star in the DPP was eager to align himself with the controversial former president, who left the political mainstream more than a decade ago and now represents its separatist fringe.
For Lin, Lee's ideas about a "second wave of democratization," and for more open and accountable local government, is quite attractive.
"We see eye to eye on some key issues,” said Lin of the former president. “As President Lee has often said, Taiwan needs to deepen democracy. This will give us a new momentum, not just in politics but in economic and cultural development.”
Lin, for his part, has taken more than a decade to mature his views and get to know his adopted city. Following his university days as a student activist, he spent seven years in the United States and returned with a PhD from Yale University in 1998.
He then took several senior posts in the central government before moving to Taichung to run for mayor the first time in 2005. Friends say he was ambitious and sometimes overbearing, expecting the heavens to open for his new career in politics.
Yet he was soundly defeated in his first bid for public office, losing by nearly 20 points to the same man he faces now – the seasoned public servant and charismatic Mr. Hu.
This time Lin says he is better prepared. Instead of scurrying back to the capital,Taipei, after his mayoral defeat, Lin stayed in Taichung with his family and put down roots. He worked as a community organizer and local party official, building connections and making friends. He ran successfully for the national legislature in 2012.
Now facing a rematch for mayor, his poll numbers have never been stronger. Local observers say Lin has been “sharpening his sword” for a decade to gain this second chance. With no candidate of their own in Taipei, DPP leaders are frequently by Lin's side at political rallies in Taichung's sprawling municipality of nearly 900 square miles.
“An election like this is very rare,” Lin said in an interview at his campaign headquarters. “This is not just a race between me and Hu. The people of Taichung are hoping for change and the conditions are now ripe.”
Lin does not see the political landscape changing easily, however. Family-based local factions remain strong and traditionally they have supported the KMT. “President Ma Ying-jeou's poor performance reduces the numbers of those who identify with the 'blue' camp, but they are just hiding for now,” said Lin.
The corrupt practice of buying votes is also a threat, even though it can bring heavy fines and jail time. “Now everyone has a mobile phone which can record voices and make videos, so it's very risky,” Lin observed, while cautioning that vote-buying still lingers in some areas.
Even if the KMT's Sean Lin wins in Taipei on Nov. 29, which looks unlikely for now, the fall of Taichung to the 'green' camp would set a new tone for the country. It would give the opposition new advantages in the 2016 presidential race. And it would also be a morale boost for the DPP, which is still recovering from the conviction of former president Chen Shui-bian on corruption charges and the loss of the last two presidential elections.
Lin has written a book outlining his new proposals for Taichung, some of which require support from Taipei. The most ambitious of these is a circumferential rail network, comparable to the famous Yamanote subway line circling Tokyo. “It's a step-by-step process, but it's one everyone supports,” he said, confident that he could work with the central government on the project.