Democracy field notes

Democracy field notes

Taiwan: A Great Choosing Day is Coming (Part 4)

KMT press conference in the southern city of Kaoshiung, earlier this week. John Keane

This is the fourth in a series covering the background and dynamics of last Saturday’s fiercely fought ‘nine-in-one’ elections in Taiwan.

The great choosing day in Taiwan is just hours away and it is no exaggeration to say that the country is shivering and twitching with excitement. For the handful of reasons already explained earlier in this series, tomorrow’s ‘nine-in-one’ elections are important. The KMT, the dominant party with its roots in the military dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, is facing widespread losses, possibly a rout. The Hong Kong factor looms large, Beijing is no doubt watching and voter turnout will be unusually high (around 70%) by local election standards. But there’s something more. Citizens here do elections in style, with tremendous passion, clever presentation, wit and great originality. For practically every citizen, even those who can’t vote because of unbreakable family or work commitments, the vote really matters, as the following field notes, hurriedly filed from Taipei, try to convey.

Independent Taipei mayoral candidate Ko Wen-je and his partner Chen Pei-chi joined by tens of thousands of supporters for a ‘walk-in’ in Taipei,November 23, 2014. Chien Jung-fong/Taipei Times

Animal Power

Under a cloudless blue autumn sky, 30,000 citizens, twice the number expected, flock to Taipei MRT’s Taipei Zoo Station, to join independent Taipei mayoral candidate Ko Wen-je and his partner Peggy Chen for a ‘walk-in’. Ko has a real chance of snatching the city hall from his KMT opponent, the well-connected former investment banker Sean Lien. It would be one of the biggest political upsets since democracy came to Taiwan, and the stakes are high.

Mayors of Taipei usually go on to become president of the country, and that’s one reason why there’s a strong whiff of excitement in the morning air. Just before the procession gets under way, Ko steps before the crowd, clutching 99 white roses. He gently hands them to his smiling partner. It’s his way of saying sorry for allegedly being annoyed about one of her recent Facebook postings.

The citizens applaud, but they’ve not assembled to witness marital make-ups, or even to see the popular pandas and latest species acquisitions in the nearby Taipei Zoo. They’re at the walk-in to demonstrate their support for a change of government. The citizens set off, strolling quietly, along the banks of the Jingmei River. In support of fellow citizens in nearby Hong Kong, umbrellas are conspicuously present. So are animals.

There are hundreds of them. The walk-in is in effect a celebration of their dignity, an ode to animal power. The signs say citizens need to care and show more respect for animals, that they should have voting rights, too. One sympathetic citizen brings along his pet snake, wearing it as a necklace, but the rally is mainly a canine affair. With a little help from the humans, some of the dogs speak out. A well-behaved group of brindle and white puppies hail from Cardigan and Pembroke. ‘Corgis support Ko p!’ chants one group, cleverly using the Mandarin term for Welsh corgi, ke ji. It resembles Ko’s nickname ‘Ko p’. The ‘p’ stands for ‘professor’, in recognition of his training as a medical doctor and current role as chair of the National Taiwan University’s traumatology unit.

Humour

‘The public feels apathetic over the vote, so candidates are resorting to publicity grabbing tactics, rather than focusing on critical issues’, complains a KMT campaign official, not wanting to be named. In the shadows of his remark lurks serious concern that a seismic shift against the KMT towards independents and pan-Green candidates may be happening. But the good citizen makes a good point: by global standards, these elections resemble a giant carnival featuring a weird and wonderful cast of characters.

With almost 20,000 candidates contesting a record 11,130 seats, campaign tactics have moved well beyond the usual leafleting, television ads and brash propaganda vans fitted with powerful loudspeakers. The Internet is awash with political opinions. Some observers expect turnout among young voters to reach record levels. Offline, on the ground, fresh things are happening as well. In Tainan, the KMT’s mayoral candidate Huang Hsiu-shuang casts herself as a ‘dark horse’ favourite against her more popular Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) opponent, incumbent Tainan Mayor William Lai. Huang hires a black horse, sits in the saddle and clip clops through the city’s streets. Citizens seem impressed.

Corruption

The spirit of monitory democracy is alive and kicking in this election. Government figures say more than 2,400 people, both candidates and supporters, mostly in rural areas, are under investigation. Shortly after my arrival in Taiwan, prosecutors in the outlying county of Kinmen questioned a university student on suspicion of handing out cash to fellow students, on behalf of a city council candidate. The going rate is not bad (around US$ 165). Everybody knows that in Taiwan connections count, and that such cases of alleged bribery are merely the tip of a big iceberg, which is why independent Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Chou Ko-sheng decided to get to the bottom of vote buying allegations. Quite without warning, he addressed the problem - excuse the pun – by undressing in public. Shortly after drawing his candidate number, still standing on stage before a large crowd of excited citizens, he stripped to his underpants, shouting: ‘Naked to meet you! Honesty and openness are the best policy!’

Opinion polls are banned in the run-up to the great choosing day, so it remains unclear whether Chou’s exposé will be enough to tug the hearts of the undecided.

Surgery

The KMT is definitely feeling the heat. It’s also under the knife. The Appendectomy Project is a recall campaign targeted at three national parliament KMT legislators: Alex Tsai, Wu Yu-sheng and Lin Hung-chih. The organisers are using the local elections to collect as many signatures as possible. In a bid to attract voters to sign the recall petition, plans are in hand to set up stands right next to polling stations in the three legislators’ constituencies. Under Taiwanese law, 13 percent of eligible voters in any given constituency must sign a petition in order for an official recall referendum to happen. ‘Hopefully,’ says a spokesman of the Appendectomy Project, ‘tomorrow will not only be a day for elections, but also an historic day for the public to exercise their constitutional rights and recall politicians who have failed the public’. The choice of the name Appendectomy Project won’t be lost on voters, and potential petitioners. In Mandarin, the term for the pan-blue KMT camp legislators, lán wĕi (藍委) is pronounced in exactly the same way as ‘appendix’ (闌尾).

A ‘wishing wall’ at DPP campaign headquarters, Kaoshiung. John Keane

Beijing

Tomorrow’s vote comes at the end of a turbulent year which saw the national legislature occupied in March by the Sunflower movement, in protest at President Ma Ying-jeou’s attempt to ram through a cross-strait services trade agreement. Ties with Beijing have officially warmed since the KMT came to power in 2008. Trade is booming and each year millions of Chinese tourists now visit Taiwan. Yet everybody knows that China is a shadowy sub-text of these local elections, and that public anxiety about excessive reliance on China runs deep.

Foxconn Technology Group chairman Terry Gou (right), speaking to reporters at a Taichung business conference this week. Liao Chen-huei/Taipei Times

During a televised debate, when asked whether a candidate who had ‘pro-independence’ leanings could legitimately serve as a high-level state official, as Taipei’s mayor, Ko Wen-je replies that ‘cross-strait compradors’, the Kuomintang officials pursuing closer ties with China, are the ones whose patriotism should be called into question. It’s a clever reply. It compounds rows going on elsewhere. There’s anger (for instance) at a Reuters report that the United Front Work Department, an organ of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, is funding ‘election airlifts’, using Taiwanese companies based in the mainland to bring Taiwanese citizens home, to vote on Taiwanese soil.

Most of these bought citizens (an estimated 80%) unsurprisingly vote for the KMT. There are parallel concerns that Chinese companies operating in Taiwan are using their market power to leverage favourable election results. During the past several days, uproars followed Foxconn Technology Group chairman Terry Gou’s provocative remark that he would ‘invest more’ in Taichung city if the KMT is re-elected. The business tycoon’s threat prompted DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen to say that if he really cares about improving people’s lives then ‘he would start with the people in his own company, by taking care of his employees, protecting the environment and helping vulnerable groups, rather than intervening in elections’.

Tears

The KMT national government is under fire over cuts to pensions and benefits, and more than a few citizens are upset over a string of food safety scandals, the latest of which prompted the resignation of the minister of health and welfare after more than a thousand restaurants, bakeries and food plants were found to have used contaminated cooking oil, dubbed ‘gutter oil’.

KMT-backed mayoral candidate Yang Chiu-hsing (right), looking confident after floods of tears, Kaoshiung, earlier this week. John Keane

There are other public concerns. Voters throughout the country, young people especially, are worried about stagnant incomes and soaring housing prices. That’s presumably why, at election headquarters in the southern city of Kaoshiung, the KMT-backed mayoral candidate Yang Chiu-hsing does something I’ve never before seen with my own eyes. During a press conference, half way through a ten-minute speech about challenges facing young people, he switches into Taiwanese dialect, then sobs uncontrollably. Journalists and campaign workers fall silent. It’s a solemn moment, but nobody looks embarrassed or much impressed by the spectacle of a would-be strong man weeping in public.

Whether the crocodile tears will be enough to win office remains to be seen. Local polls say he’s badly trailing in the polls. Things are not being helped by the fact that Yang, a former Kaohsiung magistrate, is a party hopper. He’s a former member of the DPP. After failing to win that party’s candidacy for the mayoral race, he withdrew from the DPP in order to run against the incumbent DPP mayor Chen Chu. A former Council of Labor Affairs minister (2000 to 2005), she’s a formidable political figure. Since becoming mayor in 2006, her popularity has grown on the back of the successful 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung and ongoing urban renewal and city-greening programs. Male tears seem unlikely to unseat her.

Hope

In Taichung city, the chosen location for Martin Scorcese’s new film ‘Silence’, I become aware of a basic ‘law’ of Taiwanese democracy. It’s a law that’s measurable, and can be stated simply: the vitality of a political party, its ability to connect with voters, is directly proportional to the ease of access to wi-fi at its campaign headquarters.

At DPP campaign headquarters, in downtown Taichung. John Keane

Proof of the law is provided by the switched-on, wired-up DPP headquarters in the heart of the city. Compared with its KMT equivalent, where there is no wi-fi at all, this is another world. I’m greeted by a smiling, youthful, 74-year-old campaign volunteer who tells me he’s returned home from New York, especially to vote. He’s dressed in bright pink; other volunteers sport lime green. In one corner, a group of visiting Hong Kong citizens is gripped by a lecture on how Taichung does democracy. Buzz and excitement fill the building. Hope (shī wang) is the DPP campaign theme. There’s a ‘wishing wall’ on which visitors are encouraged to post their dreams. Most striking is the attention being paid to the question of how to spread the spirit and improve the rules of tomorrow’s great choosing day. ‘The real aim of these elections’, the young and savvy local campaign director John Chou tells me, ‘is not victory for our candidate, Lin Chia-lung’. He adds: ‘The aim is rather to fire the imaginations of citizens, especially young people, to raise their awareness, to get them interested in politics, to encourage them to vote, even if it’s a vote against us.’

We’ll know in a few hours’ time whether Chou’s wish comes true.

To be concluded.

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