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Tainan Mayor William Lai

Three Things President Ma Should Do


Three Things President Ma Should Do


Tainan Mayor William Lai says the recent local elections represent a turning point in Taiwan politics and may show greater acceptance for his brand of understated governance that focuses closely on people's needs.



Three Things President Ma Should Do

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 562 )

Two days after winning re-election in a landslide, Tainan Mayor William Lai is touring the Tainan metropolitan area with a small convoy of vehicles to thank his voters in line with local custom.

Standing in the back of a red jeep, Lai waves back at residents cheering him from the street. There's no setting off deafening firecrackers or blasting music from loudspeakers (as traditional "thank you" tours would have.) A few young men with hoarse voices occasionally take turns at the microphone expressing thanks to the voters.

In the old streets of Yanshui District, an elderly woman behind a vegetable stall rushes out to the main street as soon as she hears the convoy approach, enthusiastically waving her hand at the mayor. Young men on their motorcycles give Lai the "thumbs up" to show their support and approval.

Lai's face is sunburned after standing in the open jeep for three hours. Swept by a cool sea breeze, his eyes watch intently as the convoy passes through milk fish farms in Xuejia, cornfields in Jiangjun, the salt fields of Qigu, and fields with bundles of harvested sesame stalks stacked in shocks in Xigang. The vast expanse of land under the sun looks almost picturesque. This is his beloved land, mandated by voters.

New Approach toward People and Spending

Over the past four years, Lai has carried out an experiment in local politics in Tainan by challenging a number of longstanding, entrenched ideas and approaches.

Take government personnel. Local government heads traditionally consider personnel decisions as a means to pay back political favors or reward political loyalty. Lai has ignored these unwritten rules. He grants full authority to professional civil servants who may not come from his own circle and does not accept any lobbying on personnel matters. City government employees, who are hired on a contract basis, are all selected via a unified exam held by the city government's Labor Affairs Department. Open positions are allocated based on exam results. Candidates for appointed posts such as district heads, elementary school principals and museum directors are picked through a public selection process.

Another example where Lai deviates from established practice is on government spending. 

He does not approach social welfare spending as though engaged in an arms race and does not pursue glamorous but senseless projects to curry favor with the electorate.

Taiwan's local governments are saddled with huge mountains of debt and Tainan is no exception.

In the past two years, Lai has cut his current account budget by 10 percent and 20 percent, respectively. He does not organize year-end firework displays, does not pay additional welfare benefits or subsidies to ward and community chiefs, and does not earmark funds for city councilors for small-scale construction projects. The city government has paid back NT$12.7 billion in debt within three years.

Under Lai's leadership, the bureaucratic city government has been transformed into a service-oriented organization. He initiated a regular roundtable conference with district and ward chiefs. When the city council is not in session, Lai will visit different villages and wards every two weeks with 27 department and section chiefs in tow, to hear grassroots voices on various problems. After the meetings, issues discussed are put on the city government's to-do-list and followed up on a regular basis.

Lai demands that senior city government officials get a first hand understanding of problems on the ground instead of relying on second hand briefings from their subordinates, and he has been walking his talk by crisscrossing the city to converse with local residents. He racks up more than 70,000 kilometers a year in his official vehicle, a distance that will take you around the entire island about 70 times.

Achievements on the Ground

The Lai phenomenon in Tainan is very peculiar. Lai's public approval rating exceeds 80 percent, and he has been Taiwan's most popular local leader three years in a row. Yet citizens find it hard to come up with a concrete list of his major achievements. During his first four-year term, Lai concentrated on rather innocuous infrastructure development.

Jiali District chief Huang Ching-tang says the city spent some NT$40 million to build three underground sewage tunnels and revamp the dark and neglected Zhongshan Park, which has since become a popular place of leisure for local residents.

"He spreads his achievements out on the ground (basic infrastructure), instead of piling them up for impressive display," Huang explains.

Caricaturist Lin Kuei-yu, who goes by the penname Yu Fu, has moved to Tainan and since published several books about his adopted home. Lin observes that Lai gets smaller jobs done instead of going for big, prestigious projects. The mayor's effort, Lin points out, can be seen in such areas as flood and water management, projects to free up pedestrian walkways in front of the city's traditional shop house arcades, and a public transport network along several color-coded trunk routes between the city center and the surrounding countryside.

Because Lai has an eye for the small things that affect peoples' daily lives, the pursuit of economic growth does not rank among his top priorities. Tainan citizens feel, however, that their city is changing for the better and that their mayor is very different from his peers.

In late August, Lai made up his mind that he would run an "untraditional" election campaign. Instead of stomping on the campaign trail, he kept working at city hall. He did not set up election headquarters, did not put up elections flags or promotional placards, did not use loudspeaker cars, hold election rallies or shoot TV commercials. He even closed his election account after NT$10 million in funds had been raised. He wanted to prove that it does not take big money and outrageous election pledges to win an election. "When seeking re-election, the best canvasser is the city government's track record," he said.

Lai's strategy turned out to be a success. In winning re-election, he garnered more than 710,000 votes, or nearly 73 percent of the votes cast, the highest vote share ever won by a mayor in Taiwan, and a record that will prove hard for any future mayoral candidate to pass.

After his resounding victory in the Tainan mayoral election, Lai shared his views on Taiwan's future in an exclusive interview with CommonWealth Magazine. He also gave some advice to President Ma Ying-jeou, suggesting three directions for reform. The following are excerpts of the interview, in Lai's own words:

I noticed four turning points in the local elections.

First, political accountability has emerged. The election results reflect the failure of the Kuomintang (KMT) at the central government level and the success of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) at the local government level. Had the DPP failed in local government, it would not have won 13 cities and counties no matter how dissatisfied voters had been with the KMT.

The second turning point is the Ko Wen-je phenomenon. The citizens of Taipei tore down the high wall that divides the blue and green camps. This is an amazing feat given that in Taipei, blue (pro-KMT) voters tend to outnumber green (pro-DPP) voters. There is a chance that we will see blue-green reconciliation in the future and that Taiwan will move toward greater unity.

Third is the Tainan mayoral race, in which I decided to fight a different election campaign. I ran for re-election entirely based on the city government's track record and the blueprint for the future we've been advocating. Nonetheless, I won citizens' support on an unprecedented scale. This will prove very helpful for the future development of our electoral culture.

Fourth is civil awareness. Young people are stepping out to take responsibility and change Taiwan's political culture.

I am also aware of two crises.

First, the cash-for-votes mindset remains unchanged. Candidates at the lowest level of government are buying votes. Then, candidates for city mayor or county magistrate, blue and green alike, make empty election promises in their campaigns which totaled up would cause additional annual expenditures of more than NT$70 billion.

I don't think that Taiwan can shoulder such "election checks." They are either bound to bounce or other projects will be put on hold, while debt continues to pile up.

Furthermore, the president and the premier also attempt to buy votes through certain policies, thus writing ever-bigger checks. If we don't address this crisis, Taiwan's financial burden will become heavier with each election, making it hard to move forward.

The second crisis is that Taiwan might see a [political] standstill in the coming year. Although this could be a serious problem, it could also be an opportunity for Ma Ying-jeou to carry out reforms. It's the opportunity offered by emptiness -- once the dust has settled we're left with a grand void.

After the landslide defeat in the elections, Ma will not meet with any objection from inside the KMT if he wants to carry out reforms, and society will also support him. In my opinion, this is the time and opportunity for him to leave his name in the history books.

Constitution, Finance and Party Assets

Ma could take up reforms in three directions.

1. Unite the ruling and opposition parties to push for constitutional reforms. The Constitution must make Taiwan its starting point; it must meet Taiwan's development needs and become a sustainable system. Taiwan's Constitution provides for an abnormal semi-presidential system. The president has power but is not accountable [to the legislature], whereas the Executive Yuan as such lacks a democratic mandate. More importantly, when a president wins re-election he is at the apex of his power, but after starting his second term he is doomed to become a lame duck. When a democratically elected president is unable to take the lead in running the government but must rely on a premier without a democratic mandate, it's hard for the president to get anything off the ground.

Many people favor a parliamentary system of government. I think a parliamentary system may be a good approach.

Constitutional reform must also include the Legislative Yuan. Under the current system, votes [for electoral district candidates] are malapportioned. In Tainan, 1.88 million eligible voters elect five legislators, while Yilan's 400,000 eligible voters elect one legislator. However, on Taiwan's outlying islands, just tens of thousands of voters elect one lawmaker.

Furthermore, all five legislative seats in Tainan and seven of the nine seats in Kaohsiung are in the hands of the DPP, while in Taipei, seven out of eight seats are held by the KMT.

Due to this structure, the will of blue voters is not represented in the south, and support for the green camp in the north is also not reflected. As a result, Taiwan will not be able to pull itself out of the quagmire of political divide between the blue north and the green south, or to resolve the deadlock caused by north-south confrontation.

2. Ma could rally the Legislature and Cabinet to push for financial reforms.

During eight years of DPP rule, the government issued new debt worth NT$1.4028 trillion, or NT$175.4 billion per year. In contrast, the Ma government incurred new debt totaling NT$1.8247 trillion in five years for an annual average of NT$364.9 billion. For Taiwan, this is a very detrimental direction.

During my four years in Tainan, I have felt it (the debt issue) deeply. We cut unnecessary expenses (from our budget); we kept a check on personnel expenses, increased capital expenditure, and shifted funds around to do things that are closely related to people's lives, such as flood management and street repairs.

Over these four years, we earmarked NT$6.9 billion for flood and water management, and the 37 administrative districts were allocated higher capital account budgets than in the past. This means that we were making the pie bigger.

If the central government does a good job reining in expenditures to improve government finances, every local government will be able to get more resources, and no one will have to scramble to beat the others to it.

3. The KMT must renounce its magic ring – its party assets – and return them to the people. All KMT rulers want to utilize the party assets, but in fact they become its slaves, losing their ideals. When a political party has money, it won't get down on its knees and will not be able to listen humbly to the will of the people.

If Ma can promote these three reforms during the just over a year he has left in office, not only will the KMT be reborn from the ashes but Taiwan will also gain an opportunity to rise again. Ma would be assured a place in history and his administration would not just tread water.

The DPP, for its part, should rule with a humble attitude, role up its sleeves and get to work. The premise (of the DPP's strategy) to encircle the central government (through electoral victories at the local level) is that the DPP rules its 13 municipalities well. Within a year, these local leaders will have to show their political performance.

Aside from that, the DPP must present its vision for 2016 and win public support. Or else encircling the central government will remain an empty slogan and not necessarily lead to a rotation in power.

Three Blind Spots of Taiwan's Economy

In the future, Taiwan needs to adjust its economic development strategy. In the past, Taiwan's economic policy had three blind spots:

1. An overemphasis on trade at the expense of industry

2. An overemphasis on the market at the expense of Taiwan's own needs

3. An overemphasis on liberalization and opening without giving equal consideration to industrial upgrading and technological progress

Taiwan needs an economic theory and economic development strategy that centers on this land and on the needs of the people who live on this land.

When I was elected mayor for the first time, I told my colleagues that we would not have a honeymoon period, that we only had a trial period and that if we didn't put up a good performance within a year's time, the people would choose someone else.

Therefore, those in power must stay cautious and constantly on their toes. They must listen to different opinions and start by addressing public complaints. The government will be able to meet public expectations only if it could allocate resources efficiently, establish an order of priority and see to it that money gets used where it's most needed. You need to lead your team and quietly do your job, solving problems instead of confronting the Legislature as it monitors government.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz