Taipei mayoral race loaded with implications

The China Post news staff

The Taipei mayoral election has always been seen as something bigger than itself. After all, every single one of Taiwan’s popularly elected presidents have served as mayor of the capital city before ascending to the pinnacle of their political careers. The two major contenders in this current mayoral election may not have that kind of political stature, but many observers regard the outcome of the race as an indicator of the developments of the presidential vote in 2016. Many believe that if the ruling party loses the Taipei mayor’s seat, there is a good chance that it will also lose sway over the central government. It may not be necessarily so, though. The famous example of Chen Shui-bian triumphing in the 2000 presidential race after losing his re-election bid in the Taipei mayoral poll two years before always serves as a reminder that elections are often full of surprises.

The circumstances of Chen emerging victorious in 2000 would be likely very different from what will happen in 2016. Chen’s victory was helped by a split within the Kuomintang (KMT) camp �X namely between the KMT-nominated Lien Chan and the hugely popular maverick James Soong who was mounting an independent bid. And Chen’s defeat in the 1998 mayoral election to Ma Ying-jeou demonstrates some absurdities in Taiwan’s elections. Chen had good popularity ratings coming into the re-election campaign due to significant success in improving the city. But these were not sufficient to fend off the challenge from the charismatic Ma. Of course party colors also played a major role in the mayoral race. Ma’s KMT has always been the dominating camp in the capital city, while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that Chen represented has usually had to fight an uphill battle in Taipei. Chen won his previous mayoral term in 1994 also because of a split of support between the KMT and its ally, the New Party. But the true irony is that had Ma not defeated Chen, the latter would not have thrown his hat into the ring in the 2000 race and gone on to lead the nation for eight years. We are not suggesting that Sean Lien, now representing the KMT in the Taipei mayoral race, would have the same path ahead if he loses. If he loses, this political novice’s political career might just come to an abrupt end. It may also be true for his independent rival, Ko Wen-je, a famous doctor who has never had any political ambitions prior to this campaign. We can see how difficult it would be for voters to choose between the pair based on their political experience, as neither has much to offer as proof of their capability of running the most important and most resource-rich city in Taiwan. And that’s where party colors come into play. While Ko stresses the absence of party colors in his campaign in order to attract swing votes, for the KMT-nominated Lien, party affiliation is a stigma and yet a fundamental source of support amid widespread disappointment over and anger at the ruling party within the nation. Lien may win or lose for the same reason, namely that he is a KMT candidate. But the implications will be very different: Lien’s victory may be a vote of confidence for the ruling party, and defeat a vote of no-confidence. A vote of confidence may be a boost for the KMT’s 2016 campaign, but a vote of no-confidence doesn’t necessarily apply to the presidential race. After all, an incompetent Ma does not mean his would-be successor from the KMT will be as incompetent. And remember how Ma won the mayoral elections in 1998: he captured support because of his charisma despite general recognition for Chen’s mayoral work. The KMT may not have someone as charismatic as Ma �X and voters are probably disillusioned with charismatic politicians now. But the DPP camp cannot take it for granted that a local election victory this year will automatically translate into victory two years from now. Until then, there are still too many uncertainties.