Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 25

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.

In March 2004, assuming no catastrophic event between now and then, Chen will be the DPP candidate. Who will head the opposition “blue team” ticket is uncertain. Whether, judging from this election, there will be a joint candidate is iffy. The Nationalist Party/Kuomintang (KMT) and the People First Party (PFP) failed to agree on jointly sponsoring someone in the Kaohsiung mayoral election. James Soong, head of the PFP, came out at the last minute for the KMT’s choice, but it was last minute. Whether Soong and KMT head Lien Chan can get together is hard to tell.

Some say both are has-beens. Lien lost badly in the 2000 presidential election and many observers feel he would perform no better in 2004. Soong very nearly won, taking only 2 percent less than Chen in the popular vote, and that without a party, good campaign organization or much money. He won most of the electoral districts in Taiwan’s north, east and west plus the majority of votes from all minority groups and women. Chen won big from his Fukien Taiwanese supporters in the south. This gave him the presidency. But Soong’s star has also faded with time. He has been out of the news much of the time.

If there is to be a joint ticket, then, who is to head it? Lien is senior and heads the larger party. If Chinese custom were to win out, he would. But Soong is more charismatic and more popular, and more likely to win.

Perhaps they can agree on a Lien-Soong ticket with Soong getting the top of the ticket in 2008. Or perhaps Lien will decline to run, leaving Soong to head the ticket and perhaps pick Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang to run with him. This picture looks rather messy and favors Chen.

But all of this assumes Ma will stay on as mayor and wait until 2008 to run. In fact, this has a considerable amount of logic to it. Ma is young enough and, assuming Chen is unbeatable, it would be a mistake for him to get into a presidential contest prematurely.

Yet Chen may not be unbeatable. His popularity, as reflected in opinion polls, has fallen considerably. He has been seen more and more as indecisive. Under his stewardship Taiwan’s relations with China are not good even though commercial ties are booming–causing many to worry about Taiwan’s economic dependency on an unfriendly China. In addition, Chen seems more apprehensive of running against Ma than the other possible candidates. Why?

A closer look at the recent election results may help resolve this conundrum.

Ma won 64 percent of the popular vote in the Taipei mayoral election to his opponent’s 36 percent. This constitutes a huge victory, especially so considering that his opponent Lee Ying-yuan represented both the ruling party and the majority ethnic group. Ma is mainland Chinese, that is, he came to Taiwan after the second World War [15 percent of the population].

Ma, a Harvard law school graduate, won thanks to his charisma and impressive record. His record in politics, including managing the capital city for four years, has been sterling. He is young, good looking and a strong speaker. He appeals to youthful voters who are not drawn by ethnic appeals. Many note in particular that he is a clean politician. (There seems to be a shortage of those in Taiwan these days.) Many recall that as minister of justice when Lee Teng-hui was president Ma put scores of politicians in jail for buying votes and other kinds of corruption. Lee, in fact, removed him from office for his zealousness in that regard and Ma returned to academic life for a while.

In 2000, the DPP accused the KMT of being tainted by “black gold” (crime and corrupt politicians). The accusation stuck. But many now see the DPP in the same light, guilty of vote buying and corporate bribery. Chen is indirectly tarnished both by this and by his association with Lee Teng-hui. With Chen’s help and the ethnic card, the DPP won the legislative election in 2002. Exploiting ethnic animosity is a nasty business. It evokes questions about Taiwan’s future relationship with China and 60 million overseas Chinese. It is a blemish on the DPP record and haunts Chen. If Chen doesn’t clean up his act and if voters decide to reject ethnic voting, Ma could run a successful campaign for president in 2004. He certainly has the right credentials.

The blocs came up even in the mayoral races, but the margins favored the KMT. What about the other races?

In the Taipei city council race, the KMT won twenty of fifty-two seats with 32 percent of the vote. This was a drop from the 1998 election but seems a good showing given that the KMT is no longer the ruling party, that it performed poorly in the 2000 and 2001 elections and that the contention in this race was heated. It may, in fact, signal a reversal of fortunes. The DPP lost two seats and dropped 2.5 percent in the popular vote column.

Lee Teng-hui’s Taiwan Solidarity Union failed to get any seats, suggesting Lee’s demise as a force in the capital city at least. Lee has helped the DPP and been a thorn in the side of the KMT, which he regularly excoriates for failing to promote a Taiwanese national identity.

In Kaohsiung, though the DPP’s mayoral candidate only squeaked through, the ruling party increased its seats on the city council by six. Lee’s TSU won two for the green camp. But this was to be expected.

In Taipei, Soong’s People First Party won eight seats with 17.5 percent of the vote, having never competed in such an election before. The PFP also won seven seats in Kaohsiung. This helped Soong and may have offset Soong’s alleged setback because the PFP didn’t have a mayoral candidate in either city.

If this election says anything clear about the coming presidential election of 2004, it is that the blue team–the KMT and the PFP–must truly cooperate to win and may need to find a way to get Ma on the ticket. Also Chen needs to worry. He may not be a shoe-in.

John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He has written extensively on Taiwan’s elections.