In Taipei Mayoral Race, It's Pragmatism vs. Fiery Rhetoric ; Saturday Election Could Gauge Sentiment on How to Handle Relations with China

By Cheng, Jadd | The Christian Science Monitor, December 5, 2002 | Go to article overview

In Taipei Mayoral Race, It's Pragmatism vs. Fiery Rhetoric ; Saturday Election Could Gauge Sentiment on How to Handle Relations with China


Cheng, Jadd, The Christian Science Monitor


Official voting for the Taipei mayor's race doesn't begin until Saturday. But to many observers, the results seem all but locked up.

Incumbent Ma Ying-jeou appears poised to trounce challenger Lee Ying-yuan. Some predictions put the margin as high as 50 percentage points.

The results are being closely watched, since the mayor's office is considered a steppingstone to the presidency. If voters do tap the mild-mannered Mr. Ma, of the Kuomintang Party, over the Democratic Progressive People's Party's fiery Mr. Lee, observers say it may signal an emerging consensus in Taipei, one in which a pragmatic, measured approach to politics is favored over provocative rhetoric. It may also foreshadow how voters want to handle a key issue: the all-important cross-straits relationship with China.

"There are now two major identities among Taiwanese voters," says Philip Yang, a political scientist at National Taiwan University. "There is the 'local Taiwanese identity,' which supports a romantic, idealized notion of the native Taiwanese people. Then there is the so-called 'status quo' identity, which says that we're all Taiwanese here. The status quo values economic development and social stability."

This identity split has been neatly reflected in the differences between the two candidates.

Ma has been consistently low-key throughout his campaign, rarely attacking his opponent. Offering no dramatic policy proposals, he has maintained an image as a calm, prudent and technocratic manager.

Lee, on the other hand, came out punching, and has fiercely criticized Ma for his management of the city in the past four years. He has also tried to cast the election in ethnic terms by touting his Taiwanese roots in contrast to Ma's mainland connections.

Ma was born in Hong Kong in 1950 and moved to Taiwan when he was one year old. At numerous campaign appearances, Lee has made unveiled remarks about how Ma's background might affect his handling of cross-strait relations in the mainland's favor. Lee's attacks reflect the traditional split in Taiwanese politics, between the minority of ethnic Chinese from the mainland whose families fled to Taiwan following World War II and the majority of native-born Taiwanese.

Significantly, Lee's attempt to stir old ethnic rivalries appears to have backfired. Observers say such tactics don't work with an increasingly assimilated Taipei population, in which intermarriage is common.

"Taipei is now a sophisticated cultural center," said Paul Chen, editor of The China Post, an English-language daily. "It doesn't do any good to stir up old ethnic divisions."

Still, for some voters, Lee's message resonates. "Taiwan today has more in common with the US and Japan than it does with the mainland," says one Lee supporter. …

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