Tomorrow in Taiwan a record 11,130 seats will be contested in nationwide local elections, with 80% of Taiwan's population of 23 million heading to the polls. Voting will take place across nine categories of elected office in what is known as the 'nine-in-one' election. Six municipal mayors (including Taipei), six chiefs of indigenous districts, 532 county councillors and 7851 chiefs of village are just some of the positions up for grabs.
Local election campaigning in Taipei, 25 November 2014.
While these elections haven't stirred much interest in the Australian media, they are being closely watched in North Asia and the wider region as they will serve as a barometer for the 2016 presidential election.
Taiwan's next president (the incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou, has reached his term limit) will have to navigate a narrow course through treacherous waters. They will inherit Taiwan's struggle to remain on the international map, an increasingly toothless Asian tiger economy and protracted disputes in the South China Sea. They will, of course, also have to contend with the precipitous balance of maintaining a close economic relationship with China while continuing to assert the island's independence.
Then there are the events in Hong Kong, which many argue have angered Taiwanese and further fueled distrust of China. An emerging solidarity between Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement and Taiwan's Sunflower Movement has seen unity demonstrations in Taipei and advice shared on rally organisation and crowd mobilisation. A large crowd of yellow umbrellas was displayed at a recent East Asia Cup qualifier in Taipei.
While Taiwan's gaze is almost permanently fixed on China, the reverse is also often true. This piece in Foreign Policy explains why China is watching the elections (and also offering 'election discount' flights for Taiwanese living in China to return home to vote, in the hope that they will back candidates that oppose Taiwanese independence). Those seeking more English-language analysis of Saturday's elections should head to The Economist, Thinking Taiwan blog, The Diplomat, The Conversation and the UK's China Policy Institute blog.
Tomorrow, mobile phones will be banned from polling booths, with fines ranging from A$1,000 to A$11,000. But this simple regulation will be almost impossible to enforce. Taiwan's mobile-addicted population spends an average of three hours online a day via smartphones – more than anywhere else in the world. It is hard to imagine a situation where technology-dependent Taiwanese youth (note: the voting age is 20) would sign off from mobile chat app LINE (75% of the Taiwanese population are users), let alone leave their phones behind.
The same mobile phone addiction has given rise to a vigorous brand of digital democracy in Taiwan. Some commentators believe it will play a decisive role in the outcome of the Taipei mayoral election, arguably the most important of tomorrow's electoral skirmishes. The position wields enormous influence and is a well-trodden path to the presidency. President Ma — also Chairman of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) – was mayor of Taipei from 1998 to 2006. So far it has has been a fiercely fought competition between the relatively unknown Dr Ko Wen-je, an independent and eminent surgeon supported by the Democratic Progressive Party, and the well known KMT candidate Sean Lien, whose family was recently voted the most dominant political family in Taiwan.
KMT, known as pro-business and pro-China, is allegedly the richest political party in the world with registered assets in excess of A$1 billion. And Taipei is traditionally a KMT stronghold, so it is the KMT's race to lose. But some of the most recent polling (election laws prohibit the release of poll results in the final ten days before voting) show Ko leading Lien by more than 10%. The contest has been both dramatic and bizarre, and policy positions have often been overshadowed by intense mud-slinging. There have been allegations of corruption and money laundering, organ trafficking, wiretapping and a Watergate-type scandal.
Despite the significant financial and political resources he brings to the table, there are a number of reasons why KMT's Sean Lien is behind in the polls.
Seemingly at the heart of it is a failure to connect with voters beyond core KMT supporters. Widely described as a 'princeling', his father, former vice president and KMT Chairman Lien Chan, has been outspoken during the campaign. But Lien Chan, who earlier this year emerged as a key figure in Cross-Strait talks when he was welcomed to Beijing by President Xi Jinping, may have harmed rather than helped his son's prospects. At a rally to support his son earlier this month, Lien Chan fired off a string of criticisms at Ko, including: 'I absolutely cannot stand the thought of having someone whose grandfather changed his surname to a Japanese one during the Japanese colonial era as mayor of Taipei. He (Ko) calls himself a commoner and us the privileged few. What a bastard'.
The remarks, meant to provoke nationalist sentiment, had the opposite effect. On national television Ko's elderly parents were forced to defend and explain the honour of Ko's grandfather, who was a teacher during Japanese colonisation. Apologies followed, but for many Taiwanese, who also lived through Japanese colonisation, it was profoundly offensive. It may have been the final straw for some.
The contest is perhaps most poignantly summarised by the release of recent campaign ads. Ko's ad, 'How long has it been since you last listened to your children?', plays on the insecurities of the average Taiwanese family. It addresses inequality, unemployment and job security, high property prices and the declining birth rate. A shot of Taiwan's most expensive apartment complex 'The Palace', of which Sean Lien is a resident, is a pointed reminder to voters of his privileged background (although he alleges he moved out in September 2014).
In stark contrast, Sean Lien targets young voters in his Step Up-inspired music video 'The Same World', directed by famous music producer Kuang Sheng. The ad implores youth to vote as they would in a breakdancing competition: by considering skill rather than family background, wealth or power. But it is hard to see how this dance-off video, peppered with luxury vehicles, scantily clad women and designer sunglasses, will do anything but remind voters how far removed their lives are from that of the Lien family.