‘Curse of incumbency’ could affect Taipei race


TAIPEI — The mayoral election in Taipei City in late November may revolve around local issues, but a global storm making life difficult for all incumbents seeking new terms could play just as important a role in the race to govern Taiwan’s capital.

Incumbents around the world have struggled in elections since the credit tsunami shook the globe in late 2008 and early 2009, the Democrats’ shellacking in the United States on Nov. 2 being only the latest example of the perils of being in power and running for a new term in office.

Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-bin of Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) can fully empathize with the challenge of confronting the “curse of incumbency” as he fights an arduous battle to stay on after the Nov. 27 election.

“The voters don’t have any major issues with Hau as a mayor because he has done some good things to improve the city. But the perceived poor performance of the central government, the slow economic recovery, and a very capable opponent are what is dragging him down,” said Chen Chao-jian, an associate professor in Ming Chuan University’s Graduate School of Public Affairs.

Still, Hau should benefit from running in what is a true KMT stronghold — Ma won re-election as mayor in 2002 with a margin of 28 percentage points over his challenger. But city administration problems have added to Hau’s woes of being an incumbent following the global economic meltdown, and made the race’s outcome unpredictable.

In the last four years, the 58-year-old former environmental minister has helped increase Taipei’s international exposure by holding two major international events — the Deaflympics in 2009 and the Taipei International Flora Exposition, which formally opened on Nov. 6, just three weeks before the election.

He also presided over the opening of the Maokong Gondola, two new Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) lines, and the renovation of the long-neglected Songshan Airport, now renamed Taipei International Airport, which handles flights to the city airports of Tokyo and Shanghai.

But these accomplishments have been weighed down by construction problems with the gondola, frequent breakdowns on the Wenhu MRT Line in its first six months of operation, the high cost of the Flora Expo, and a corruption scandal related to the Xinsheng Overpass renovation project involving Hau’s top aides.

These all have tarnished the public’s perception of the mayor’s leadership and judgment.

As the nation’s capital and home to 2.6 million people, Taipei is often seen as a “presidential breeding ground.” The last three presidents — Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian, and Ma — all served as Taipei mayor before ascending to Taiwan’s political throne.