Written by Jonathan Leung.
Image credit: 黃珊珊/ Facebook.
Political Ecology of Taipei City
Less than three weeks before the 2022 Taiwanese Local Elections, the limelight is on Taipei City, Taoyuan City, Hsinchu City and Miaoli County. Multiple candidates from different parties running in these constituencies are unprecedented and will surely add uncertainties to the polling results. The first pass-the-post system renders the mayoral campaign a competition between the Chinese Nationalists Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Yet, the young established New Power Party (NPP) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) have both nominated candidates to run for mayoral and magistrate posts and city councillors. Rather than being also-rans, they now stand a decent chance to win. This article examines the case of the Taipei City Mayoral Election, evaluating the differences between the two traditionally dominant parties and the newly established ones.
The campaign for the top seat in Taipei City has always stood out, partly because Taipei is the capital but largely because the mayor’s post is seen as the stepping stone to the presidential office. Three presidents, namely, Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou, were former Taipei City mayors. Incumbent Mayor Ko Wen-je, the leader of TPP, has also vowed, for numerous times, to run for the 2024 Presidential Election. The mayoralty of Taipei is the major battlefield in the local elections. A record high of twelve candidates is contesting, making this race all the more interesting. Yet, the real race is only among three: Wayne Chiang Wan-an from the KMT, Chen Shih-chung from the DPP and Vivian Huang Shan-shan, running as an independent with the endorsement of the TPP. The following discusses the significance and differences between these three candidates.
Wayne Chiang: Do looks count?
The KMT is eager to recapture Taipei due to its traditional pan-Blue characteristics. Therefore, they have decided to nominate the ‘strongest’ candidate to run the campaign. Yet, their definition of ‘strength’ is not knowledge or experience in municipal administration but rather popularity in opinion polls. Therefore, the party decided against a primary, excluding ambitious and potential candidates. Instead, their leader Eric Chu conscripted Wayne Chiang to represent the party to run for the mayoralty. Chiang is a legislator representing one of the constituencies of Taipei. Notably, Chiang is the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek and grandson of Chiang Ching-kuo, the two former presidents of the country; this could be a strategy to unite pan-Blue supporters.
Moreover, his unique background and presentable looks make him a breath of fresh air among the aged members of KMT. “Handsome!” supporters of Chiang gave this reason in street interviews for potentially voting for him. Charisma is undeniably important for a political leader. Nevertheless, do looks alone qualify him for candidacy? Apart from Chiang, former Taipei City councillor Lo Chih-chiang also expressed his interest in joining the mayoralty two years ago. Lo became popular during the 2021 Referendum by going to different cities and counties to campaign for the questions KMT supported. Yet, his hopes were dashed when Chu decided not to run a primary. He then expressed his interest in running for the office of Taoyuan Mayor.
While Chiang has stressed time and again to the media his blue blood and that he has “worked his way through in districts step-by-step”, rarely has he mentioned how and why he is qualified for the job. His policy agenda includes proposals like an online reservation for public buses and doing 20 squats before getting on a bus to get a fare concession sound both infeasible and ludicrous. His opponents often attack him as being out of tune with the people and living in a parallel universe. Besides, the KMT has not grown out of the tradition of nominating descendants from significant political figures to run the race. Three out of four of the recent nominees were descendants of luminaries. Hau Lung-pin is the son of former Premier Hau pei-tsun. Sean Lien’s father, Lien Chan, was the former Vice President and Premier as well. This time round, Chiang is the great-grandson and grandson of two former presidents. Family background is one of the primary considerations of the party. Various factors show that the nomination of Chiang was just for the KMT to stand a higher chance of regaining control of Taipei and strengthening their own power, but not for the people’s good.
Chen Shih-chung: Can he defeat his opponents like Covid?
Compared to other parts of Taiwan, Taipei was not a base of the DPP. They had only won once in 1994 when the New Party, a breakaway faction from the KMT, also joined the election. The DPP may well think it can take advantage of the current situation again. Since the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been calls for Chen Shih-chung, the Minister of Health and Welfare, to run for the Taipei mayoralty due to his success in keeping the people of Taiwan safe from Covid, suddenly becoming a superstar of the party and the country. While he is recommended to run for the Taipei mayoralty, there are also suggestions within the DPP for him to run in New Taipei or Taoyuan, whom he is regarded as a wild card. At the same time, Lin Chia-lung, the former Taichung City Mayor and Minister of Transportation and Communications, has expressed his enthusiasm for representing DPP in the Taipei elections. He launched a 12-chapter policy vision for Taipei to prove his determination and competency to run for the role. Yet, DPP’s election committee has made various attempts to persuade him to switch his battlefield to New Taipei. With his final yield, Chen was nominated to run in Taipei simultaneously.
The party’s election committee and its leader Tsai Ing-wen hold power to nominate candidates. One of the reasons for nominating Chen is due to his leading popularity in the opinion poll; this could be seen when DPP city councillors hung posters with Chen way earlier than his nomination. He might have been a capable Health Minister, but his ability to be a good mayor has yet to be proven. In contrast, Lin has been a mayor, and he has put together a blueprint for the capital. During the year, opinion polls were conducted to gauge Chen’s popularity in different cities to select his best constituency. Arranging party candidates with limited municipal experience or connections with the city hurriedly may not seem to be beneficial to the city’s future welfare. Party interest has again prevailed over the city’s future.
Vivian Huang: Can she breakthrough from the two traditional parties?
“Huang has all my merits but none of my demerits.” Highly commended by Ko Wen-je, Vivian Huang from the People First Party (PFP) has stolen the limelight running as an independent with the endorsement of TPP. She first became a Taipei City Councillor in 1998 as a member of the New Party (NP), a party that defended the rights of Chinese immigrants back then. She joined the PFP in 2002 after being expelled from the NP. When PFP has gradually declined, her vote share was never low. She cooperated with the DPP in the 2016 legislative election – the latter did not field any candidate but endorsed her to run instead. She has a cordial relationship with the Greens and is traditionally associated with the Blues. Her brother Huang Shu-kuang, a trusted general of Tsai Ing-wen, served as the Chief of the General Staff and the Chief Commander of the Navy. Ko Wen-je recruited her to work as Deputy Mayor of Taipei in 2019. Her deep connections with both camps may allow professionals to find it easier to tender advice to the government irrespective of political convictions. Yet, her diverse background might confuse people from understanding her stance. She may be regarded as an independent candidate without the partisan burden and a political chameleon who often switches sides.
One thing different from her opponents, Huang has served as a city councillor for twenty-one years and three years as a deputy mayor, which may contribute to her familiarity with the municipal administration. Unexpectedly, she is endorsed by former NPP leader Huang Kuo-chang. Although he was never an easy-going person during his service as a legislator, his support might be seen as a recognition of Vivian Huang’s political agenda. Pan-Green city councillors have criticized Ko recently, but Huang is seldom a target. Can this be regarded as a report card of her performance and qualities? Yet, she always runs behind her opponents in the opinion polls, ranking second or third. Resources, supporters’ mobilization, and political base are always advantages of traditional big parties. To what extent can she fight for the support of independent voters and traditional parties’ supporters is her toughest task before proving herself competent as mayor?
According to opinion polls, the predicted voting results of the three major candidates are always in the margin of error. This year’s Taipei mayoral election is the most unpredictable one in history. The first female or youngest mayor may arise in November. Having a mayor who puts the city’s interest first is important. Political interest and faction balancing should not precede the city’s welfare. ‘For the people or for the party’ is the question for the 2.5 million citizens of Taipei.
Jonathan Leung is an MA History student at SOAS, University of London and a history graduate from the University of Sheffield. He is researching in post-war political and social history of Taiwan.
This article was published as part of a special issue on “Backstage of the upcoming mid-term election.”