Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 25

By John F. Copper

On December 7, voters in Taiwan’s two metropolitan cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung, went to the polls to choose their mayors and the members of their respective city councils. Taipei, Taiwan’s largest city and its capital, and Kaohsiung, the country’s largest city in the south and its biggest port, together constitute more than a third of the island nation’s population. This so-called “mid-term election,” then, was no small affair. Regarded by many as a test case for the 2004 presidential election, it was also a bellwether for voters and pundits alike.

Taipei’s incumbent mayor, Ma Ying-jeou, got his job after defeating Chen Shui-bian in 1998. For Chen, this was a blessing in disguise: It freed him to run for president in 2000. Despite that victory, however, he harbored some resentment toward Ma. This certainly would explain why Chen and his aides engaged in several vicious personal attacks on Ma during the campaign. Ma, Chen said, had “Hong Kong foot” [athlete’s foot], meaning that Ma’s loyalty–he was born in Hong Kong, not Taiwan–might lie elsewhere, perhaps with the mainland. Chen’s supporters said worse. Clearly Chen views Ma as his strongest challenger in the 2004 presidential election campaign.

Some pundits, however, suggest that Chen didn’t want his own party’s candidate, Lee Ying-yuan, to win. Ma’s victory would make it impossible for Ma to run against Chen in the March 2004 presidential race without breaking a promise that he would serve out his four-year term. What Chen wanted was a close election that would embarrass Ma but not remove him from office. But he didn’t get it.

In Kaohsiung, incumbent Frank Hsieh of the ruling DPP won, but only barely, and amidst allegations of corruption. Observers note that a slim margin in a DPP stronghold with the advantage of incumbency is an ominous victory.