The politics of Central Taiwan: Where the presidential election will be won and lost

With southern Taiwan strongly pro-DPP and northern Taiwan strongly pro-KMT, both the local and international media as well as the two major parties in Taiwan have identified central Taiwan, especially the municipality of Taichung, as a major battleground in the ongoing election campaigns. In this piece I’ll summarize some of the issues that impact voters in the Taichung area.

The fundamental factor shaping voting patterns is the colonial pattern of resource flows erected by the KMT. Historically in Taiwan, resources flow out of peripheral rural areas and south and central Taiwan and to the north. In practice this has meant that the South is beggared to pay for Taipei’s extravagant lifestyle, and a disproportionate share of development funds have gone to the two municipalities of Taipei and (less so to) Kaoshiung. This colonial pattern of resource flows from south to north is a powerful driver of pro-DPP sentiment in the south and center, where Taiwan independence controversies mask a bitter struggle over the island’s resources between the center and periphery, between party elites in the KMT and southern KMT supporters, and between the two major parties.

As a result, in the last few years, the urban areas of Tainan, Kaohsiung, Taichung, and Taipei county have all upgraded themselves to municipalities in order to obtain a bigger slice of the government funding pie. Taichung annexed its entire county to form a new municipality in December of 2010, deeply impacting the local area’s politics.

Further, because of the central government’s lavish treatment of Taipei and other issues, local governments outside Taipei are deeply in debt, especially in the south and center. This means that the counties are dependent on central government funding flows, while voters experience a lack of the services and infrastructure they need. This makes them consider switching parties and politicians.

Taichung itself should never have been in play. A few years ago the friendly, outgoing Mayor of Taichung, Jason Hu, a KMT heavyweight and former former foreign minister, was highly popular with his constituents. He had crushed his DPP opponent in the previous election, and memories of his DPP predecessor, a local faction politician widely held to be corrupt, were not happy. Bit by bit, however, Taichung area residents have become increasingly dissatisfied with the mayor’s leadership.

One major factor has been the development of along the west side of the city, where giant new apartment buildings rise like a glass and steel henge around the city’s outskirts and thrust a long finger of new development toward the city center. In the best build-it-and-they-will-come style, these are aimed at presumed Chinese investors. This wave of development has also included both the new science park on the slopes of Tatu Shan, the 300 meter high hill that stands between the city and the ocean, and the residential and commercial areas that surround it. Unfortunately for the KMT, during the months prior to the Dec 2010 election many local factions on that side of the city, feeling shut out of the pie, dropped their longtime support of the KMT and switched to the DPP. Because these factions are frequently aligned with local temple associations that function as the nexus for powerful local clans, local organized crime, local businessmen, and other influential individuals, temples on that side of the city switched sides as well. Although control of temples is seldom mentioned in media analysis of Taiwan’s politics, they are a key element in local politics. So influential are they that politicians have been convicted of vote buying for donating to local temples in order to get them to influence their devotees.

Conversely, the new wave of luxury development has almost totally neglected the east side of the city and the hills beyond. Additionally, the city was supposed to have had a metro years ago. Construction has finally begun, but the interminable approval process, delays, and changes in the plan, along with the city’s uneven development that has enriched developers but few others, has left many voters disappointed in the administration of Mayor Hu.

A second factor in the changes in Taichung is the new municipality. While the city itself may be solidly pro-KMT, the rural areas are thought to lean DPP. After the upgrade the outgoing KMT chief of the county was said to have simply given up on his job, since he would no longer have it come Dec 25th when the new municipality was born and the county was swallowed. Moreover, Taichung mayor Jason Hu was widely perceived to have neglected the county in his campaigning.

In May of 2010 a spectacular gangland killing profoundly altered the political calculus. An assassin simply walked into the office of reputed gangster Weng Chi-nan and shot him. Four police officers were present playing Mahjong with the victim and did nothing; investigation later established that perhaps as many as ten policemen had been in and out of the dead man’s office that day. This highlighted Taichung’s dismal reputation for collusion between police and organized crime and its reputation as the island’s crime center under Jason Hu. The killing followed on the heels of a massive funeral in the city for a major organized crime figure, attended by 20,000, including prominent politicians and mayor himself. The public professed to be sick of the city’s lack of order, and the local media went baying after the issue in its finest Golden Retriever style.

Other issues came in a cascade. In March a fire killed nine people in an overcrowded bar; Mayor Hu responded by closing more than 300 drinking establishments because they were improperly registered. Not only did this cause outrage in the city over the loss of the city’s vibrant music scene, it also made public the fact that the process for overseeing the certification of restaurants under Jason Hu was corrupt and ineffective. Because Taichung is perhaps the center of the island’s live music scene, this caused little ripples of resentment all over the island. Moreover, critics claimed that large establishments owned by individuals close to the KMT had remained open. Hu also went even further to announce a ban an island tradition, outdoor tables at convenience stores, a favorite place for workers to gather for beer and snacks in the evening. Locals rolled their eyes and then laughed when it wasn’t enforced.

In 2010 Jason Hu did manage to win reelection in a tight election, probably due to an assassination attempt on a KMT politician by a local gangster in Taipei, which perversely generated sympathy for the KMT after KMT officials mendaciously claimed it was an example of “pan-Green violence.” Many voters felt cheated by this propaganda and there may be a small backlash of compensating votes for the DPP in the 2012 election. The current DPP vice presdential candidate, Su Chia-chuan, lost the 2010 mayoral election in Taichung to Jason Hu, but performed extremely well in Taichung, suggesting that he may have a positive influence on the DPP’s prospects.

Many other basic political factors remain unchanged. The KMT’s control over local neighborhood politicians and political networks, as well as the local government, temples, bureaucracy and police is more or less intact. The DPP’s local area networks remain underdeveloped and dependent for support on local clan and factional organizations that are likely to switch sides if a better deal is offered. The KMT controlled legislature passed a law to freeze its local politicians in place for another five years in the event of DPP victories in 2010, meaning that local government remains a KMT fief. In some ways, given the massive KMT advantage in funding, structure, and organization, it is a powerful testimony to the incompetence of that party’s leaders and to the skill of DPP Chair Tsai Ing-wen in reviving the DPP and fielding credible candidates, that central Taiwan has become a key to victory in the upcoming Presidential and legislative elections.

Michael Turton is a Taichung resident and blogs at the highly regarded, influential and recommended The View From Taiwan.