Taiwan Readies for Municipal Elections

On Nov 27, Taiwanese voters will choose the leaders of the island's five most populous and economically most developed municipalities, including Taipei. And although these are local polls, there are weighty repercussions. The municipal elections are seen as a precursor to legislative elections next year and presidential elections in 2012.

Despite the drubbing of the Democratic Progressive Party took in national elections in 2008, a major reshuffle in Taiwan's domestic politics is by no means impossible in the municipal elections. Although real second-quarter gross domestic product reached 12.5 percent and the Kuomintang has skillfully maneuvered cross-strait relations, opinion polls suggest that the DPP, which was nearly sunk in national elections by the disgraced former president Chen Shui-bian, is enjoying some resurgence. Races are neck and neck in Taipei and in Xinbei, as the county surrounding Taipei will be called after it has been upgraded to a municipality.

Of the remaining three electoral battlegrounds, the DPP's traditional strength is in the southern cities of Kaohsiung and Tainan, whereas in central Taiwan's main city Taichung, the KMT's candidate enjoys a double digit lead over his DPP counterpart. Thus while a scenario in which the DPP wins four of five municipalities is unlikely, it's not being ruled out totally.

Some 11 million people live in Taipei and Xinbei, nearly accounting for half of Taiwan's population. In Taipei, incumbent mayor Hau Ling-bin of the KMT is challenged by the DPP's Su Tseng-chang. If the balding and staid Su, premier under Chen Shui-bian, is hardly a pop star and lacks charisma, then Hau doesn't have any at all.

Hau arguably is among the weakest of all of Taiwan's high-level politicians. The son of a KMT general and former premier, he gives the impression of being a stereotypical princeling whose ancestral roots are on the Chinese mainland.

Su, by contrast, hails from the rural south. And, unlike Hau, Su doesn't seem hopelessly out of place when campaigning at Taipei's backstreet temples and traditional markets.

Hau and Eric Chu, a former vice premier plagued by a similar lack of magnetism who is running as the KMT's candidate in Xinbei against DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ying-wen, can take advantage of the helping hand of the party that runs both the central and the Taipei City governments. Since its 2008 landslide-election win, the KMT has held more than 70 percent of the legislative seats. Hau in 2006 was comfortably elected mayor with 54 percent against his opponent's 41 percent.

The government is giving Hau all the help it can. For only the second time in its 50-odd years of existence, the 2010 Taipei International Flora Exposition's grand opening was scheduled in November -- during the run-up of the polls. More than 8 million tourists are expected during the expo's run.

At the same time direct Taipei-Tokyo flights have been launched after a 31-year hiatus, The KMT is using the new connection to the Japanese capital and the visitors expected for the flora expo to showcase the party's accomplishment in bringing Taipei out of the international isolation that for decades has been gnawing at the city's self-esteem. Hau, however, faces questions over procurement contracts for the event.

The third event apparently arranged to boost both Hau's and Eric Chu's chances was the ahead-of-schedule opening of a new segment of the city's mass rapid transit system should give them a genuine boost. The new line connects Taipei City with Xinbei's most populous areas and is not only welcomed by dwellers of Taipei's satellite cities but is also regarded as key to solving exorbitant housing prices in Taipei City, long listed as the number-one public complaint in surveys.

For Eric Chu's opponent Tsai Ying-wen, the MRT extension per se has developed into a tricky issue since she once cautioned against it and is thus seen as hesitant on a project that could have a positive impact on the Xinbei voters' everyday lives as well as on their property values.

Former President Chen's Nov. 5 acquittal on one of the corruption charges against him was likely not arranged by either the KMT nor the Taipei city government. However, the KMT in all probability welcomed the timing since the fate of Chen, who is serving a 20-year jail sentence for corruption, still polarizes the nation.

As early as in June, political commentator and former pan-blue lawmaker Yao Li-ming warned that developments involving the former president could have an impact on the elections.

"Chen's acquittal at this stage is good for the KMT in Taipei and Xinbei, because it mobilizes KMT supporters to vote," said Chou Ying-lung, a lecturer at Taiwan's National Chengchi University's Department of Political Science.

At a glance, these issues that developed to the KMT's advantage in such a timely manner should give Hau and Eric Chu the upper hand. However, opinion polls and political observers don't indicate that. Although a survey commissioned by the Chinese-language Apple Daily had Chu leading 33.5 percent to Tsai at 30.4 percent, 36.1 percent of the respondents had yet to make up their minds. The same poll put Hau's lead over Su Tseng-chang at as little as 0.4 percent.

In an interview, Wang Yeh-lih, chairman of the Department of Political Science of National Taiwan University lists why he thinks the DPP could well turn out as the winner.

"Local governments currently ruled by the DPP almost all have higher approval rates than those ruled by the KMT, Wang said. "During the previous 12 months, the DPP has won all but every legislative by-election. DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ying-wen's image is spotless, whereas Su has charisma that is attractive to younger voters. And neither of them dragged the issue of cross-strait unification and independence into the elections."

The prediction that the KMT could end up being rewarded by the electorate because closer cross-strait cooperation boosted the economy also may well prove wrong, Wang continued. Although the pact arguably helped to insulate Taiwan from the global financial crisis, Wang doesn't believe it will convince the voters.

That is because so far, economic growth hasn't trickled down to the voters in terms of more jobs or higher pay.