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2011 Local Leader Approval Survey

Big Names See Their Stars Fall


Big Names See Their Stars Fall

Source:Ming-Tang Huang

Just having a recognizable name no longer guarantees political popularity. As this year's Local Leader Approval Survey reveals, the secret to success is balancing the public's aspirations with sustainable local development.



Big Names See Their Stars Fall

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 480 )

He may suffer from the most agonizing fate of any mayor in Taiwan. His poll numbers remained in the lower ranges during the better part of his first four-year term, with nobody really expecting him to succeed.

Then, in last year's major municipal elections, facing a formidable opponent, he came out on top by over 165,000 votes, or an 11.8 percent margin. But in his first report card after the election, city residents have kept him in the lower half of the local leader rankings.

Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin has earnestly reviewed his performance and brought in polling expert Tim T.Y. Ting as one of his deputy mayors to figure out "exactly how to get people to have a feeling for" the city government's efforts. His face is etched with uncertainty, worried that he has yet to grasp the full depth of the issue.

A Poll as a Mirror

A constituency unable to get a feeling for a government's performance is a politician's greatest nightmare. Though residents may vote for a particular candidate in fierce one-on-one election battles, they tend to cast a far stricter eye when examining an administrative leader's accomplishments. In that sense, polls resemble mirrors, accurately reflecting trends in public opinion.

"But if (politicians) blindly focus on the feelings of their constituents, they may not be following correct policy directions," says Shang-chih Chen, an associate professor in National Chung Cheng University's Department of Political Science, pointing to the dilemma faced by leaders in playing to public emotions. As former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger once said, one of the toughest challenges for politicians is finding a common point between one's own vision and that of one's constituents.

That's because people's sentiments can change surprisingly quickly. In last year's Local Leader Approval Survey, respondents were caught up in the emotions of five major special municipality elections and gave "pro-green" leaders of counties and cities the top six spots in the rankings. But this year's survey results show a shift in priorities. (See Table)

"This year, the respondents reverted to a focus on fundamental performance, emphasizing the actual performance of city and county chiefs," observes Gao Ruping, the secretary-general of the National Association for the Promotion of Community University and one of the panel of experts queried as part of the survey.

Phenomenon No. 1: New People, New Images

A local government administration can be the cruelest of stages. One trend that emerged from the survey's results is that three of the top five local leaders are in their first term.

Fu Kun-chi, who has headed Hualian County for a year and eight months, tried to clone the "James Soong-style" of governing soon after he took office and immediately vaulted to seventh in last year's survey. He continued his meteoric rise this year, jumping all the way to the top.

Elections for the five special municipalities (Taipei, New Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung) were held just over nine months ago, and the only "new face" to win a race, former legislator and now mayor of Tainan, Lai Ching-te, rode his fresh image to rank third. He was edged out for second by Pingdong County commissioner Tsao Chi-hung, who is in his second term. Tsao was recognized by local residents for his recent follow-up operations in response to the damage of Typhoon Morakot after being roundly criticized for his lackluster response immediately after the storm devastated southern Taiwan in August 2009.

Jiayi County commissioner Chang Hwa-kuan has been active in local municipalities and has positioned herself as building a "garden city," rising from sixth last year to fourth this year.

In fifth was second-term Jhanghua County commissioner Cho Po-yuan, the Kuomintang's highest ranked local leader and one of the party's few mid-career figures who delivered strong results. Huang Ming-hui, a KMT vice chairwoman and second-term mayor of Jiayi City, also did well, finishing seventh.

Phenomenon No. 2: Aura of Political ‘Stars' Fading

Another trend in this year's survey is the fading popularity of previous political stars.

Taichung mayor Jason Hu, once considered a part of the KMT's top triumvirate along with President Ma Ying-jeou and New Taipei mayor Eric Chu, fell from 18th last year to 21st, or second-to-last, this year.

Although Hu and his city have gained recognition for their strong support for cultural activities, the mayor has failed to deliver on other fronts. He promised during his most recent election campaign to create a "lifelong learning city," but has not increased funding to carry out his learning city vision or presented a clear blueprint for the future. Hu has also not lived up to expectations on the environment.

In New Taipei, where Eric Chu was elected to succeed last year's lowest ranking local leader Chou Hsi-wei, Chu only gained enough support from his constituency to finish 19th in this year's rankings. His approval rating roughly correlates with the 52.6 percent of the vote he garnered in last November's election, an indication that in his eight months in office, he has yet to deliver the kind of results that could expand his support base.

Chu's ranking highlights a potential concern for the KMT as Taiwan's presidential and legislative elections approach. The KMT leaders in the party's traditional strongholds of Taipei, New Taipei, Taichung, Keelung and Taoyuan County, with a combined population of over 10 million people, finished in the last five spots in this year's survey of the country's 22 local leaders.

Wang Yeh-lih, a National Taiwan University political science professor, contends that consistent with past experience, public dissatisfaction with KMT governance and Ma Ying-jeou at the national level has adversely influenced the approval ratings of local leaders, presenting a stiff test for the governing party in next January's national elections.

The results indicate that at the same time that the KMT tries not to lose too much ground in southern Taiwan, it will have to account for weakness in its support base in northern and central Taiwan.

Phenomenon No. 3: Special Municipality Winners on the Decline

One somewhat surprising trend in this year's survey is that of the five winners of last November's special municipality elections, only Tainan's Lai Ching-te has performed up to expectation.

Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu, who placed third in the 2010 rankings, fell to 10th in 2011 and finished the lowest of the Democratic Progressive Party's six local administrative chiefs. On Dec. 25, 2010, Chen took over the reins of a newly merged municipality comprised of the former Kaohsiung County and the City of Kaohsiung, which she had headed since 2006, and it would not have been surprising had her fall come because of lower ratings in what was Kaohsiung County. But that was not the case.

Instead, many believe that her smooth handling of the World Games in July 2009, which sent her political star soaring, also created a standard of performance that would be hard to surpass. Over the past year, there have not been any noteworthy issues or events, and she has not taken any policy initiatives or presented any visions of the future that have resonated with her constituents.

"She has not been able to offer any policies or philosophies that have transcended her existing foundation," says Jenner Lin, secretary-general of The Society of Wilderness.

Chen's fate testifies to the political dictum that if you are not moving forward, you're falling behind.

The inability to innovate new personal brands compounded by the organizational complications resulting from their bailiwicks' upgrades into special municipalities last December has left the five mayors exhausted just trying to catch up.

"New Taipei is composed of 29 townships and a county government. Trying to integrate 30 systems into one is a challenge we have to face up to this year," says New Taipei mayor Chu.

The changes in this year's local leader survey rankings reveal that being a "star" no longer guarantees popularity. Much like a hurdles race, some get off to great starts and draw rave reviews but in the process imperceptibly create only higher hurdles to scale, where every step they take becomes like walking on thin ice, and the opportunity for progress is limited. Others start slowly after being dealt a bad hand, and their only option is to press forward, hoping to improve their standing through patience and stamina.

Public Demand No. 1: Listen and Communicate

But what is it that the general public really wants? Over the years, CommonWealth Magazine's Local Leader Survey has shown that Taiwan's people have been making an increasing number of demands of their political leaders, but one has remained consistent throughout: the need for politicians to listen and communicate.

Taipei's Hau, who previously served as a legislator and headed the Environmental Protection Administration before running Taiwan's capital, firmly believed that "one's political performance should speak for itself." But it is that attitude that found him embroiled in a major controversy recently over the lack of clarity in the city's education policy.

He admits to realizing only in recent years that not only do political leaders have to communicate with the people on political issues, they must "understand their thinking and consider issues from their perspective," Hau says.

By contrast, Tainan mayor Lai Ching-te places a premium on communicating with his constituents. When faced with a boycott by the Tainan City Council earlier this year, Lai refused to back down. Taking his message directly to the people, he appealed to them with his views, letting them know where he stood on the issues. As a result, when the showdown with the city council was at its tensest, it was the city councilors who, regardless of party affiliation, faced an upbraiding from their constituents whenever they went out in public.

Lai, who fought the battle by "letting city residents see who was more right," has used the philosophy to make it through similar close calls in the rapidly changing landscape of local politics.

Public Demand No. 2: Making Good Use of Resources

Taiwan's people also want government to put a priority on the efficient use of resources, including money and talent.

Pingdong County's Tsao was able to recruit Yen Ching-hsiang, a professor at National Pingtung University of Education, to head the county's Department of Education, and also added Wu Li-hsueh, the former head of the Kaohsiung County Bureau of Social Affairs, to his team.

"Having specialized political appointees guide policy naturally makes it easier for people to get a feeling (for the government's efforts)," says Chou Wen-chen, the secretary-general of the United Way of Taiwan.

At a time when all local governments are facing financial squeezes, some leaders have cleverly stressed making a virtue of smaller initiatives to overcome fiscal restraints.

Jiayi City mayor Huang Min-hui, the only KMT leader in an otherwise pro-DPP political landscape in southern Taiwan, has adopted a "wise aunt mentality" in striving to balance her city's finances. In 2010, the city had a debt reduction rate of 17.32 percent, and it stands out as the administrative district in Taiwan with the lowest amount of outstanding debt.

Public Demand No. 3: Be a Problem Solver

What people also seem to want is for their local leaders to play a problem-solving role and vie for resources from the central government.

During a recent meeting preparing disaster responses for the impending Typhoon Nanmadol, Hualian's Fu was the first to criticize President Ma Ying-jeou, demanding funds for flood control in his county. In making the request, Fu successfully created the image of "always standing with the people."

"In pushing for the Suhua Highway Bypass, he really won the hearts of Hualian's people," says Teyri-Yudaw, a member of the Truku people, a local indigenous group. The narrow roadway cut into the side of mountains that is the main artery connecting Hualian to northern Taiwan and the capital of Taipei has long been a headache for people in the county. Traffic is frequently blocked for days at a time when storms blow through northeastern Taiwan and trigger landslides and rockslides on the road, preventing, for example, the delivery of agricultural produce to its main markets, and costing farmers dearly. By fighting for central government approval of a Suhua Highway upgrade project that will create an alternative roadway bypassing the most vulnerable sections of the existing road, Fu left a deep impression on his constituents.

Reminder No. 1: The Consequences of Populist Politics

Politicians have come to realize the need to be responsive to their constituents, but blindly following public opinion may not necessarily result in the best policy approaches, even if they deliver strong poll results.

"If politicians do what people think is good and avoid doing what people don't like, then are politicians simply kissing up to their constituents or are they making long-term development plans for the country and society?" wonders Hsing-Sheng Tai, an associate professor in National Dong Hwa University's College of Environmental Studies. It's a question all political leaders must ask themselves.

In the end, the people must collectively bear the consequences of "populist politics." Hsinchu County commissioner Chiu Ching-chun, whose Hakka-accented Mandarin creates an immediate connection with constituents in his Hakka-dominated region, campaigned hard to win his post in late 2009 only to find that "my home's kitchen was on fire." The county government's debt and budget deficit were beyond his expectations, making it impossible for him to deliver the kind of results he had wanted.

The problems date back to 1994 when the county was debt-free. The county commissioner at the time, Fan Chen-tzung, began handing out subsidies to senior citizens, becoming the first local chief in Taiwan to do so. Chiu's predecessor Cheng Yung-chin upped the stakes by increasing the monthly stipend to NT$6,000 for all county seniors regardless of their income levels. The policy propelled Cheng to the height of his popularity in 2005, when he tied with Penghu County commissioner Lai Feng-wei for first place in that year's local leaders survey.

"If that policy is not brought to an end, what will happen to the next generation?" asks Tsai Jung-kuang, the head of the county's Social Affairs Department. Tsai has been busy after the county recently decided to stop the payments to seniors with incomes above a certain level, attending more than 100 forums to explain the new policy. He has the daunting figures memorized by heart.

A total of NT$30.5 billion has been spent on the senior citizen subsidies over the 16 years that the policy has existed, a sum exceeding the county's annual budget of NT$27.3 billion. The county now has NT$2.5 billion in annual subsidy liabilities, but its social welfare budget is only NT$2.3 billion. Tsai bluntly asserts that populist election strategies need to be reversed and that politicians can longer make such promises to win favor with voters.

Is chasing public opinion really the best strategy? The question is increasingly worth considering in Taiwan. Chiu's team calculates that while the decision to limit pension payouts based on income thresholds has sparked something of a backlash, it may also win back 30,000 votes from younger constituents.

Reminder No. 2: Visions to Nowhere

Chiu's straightforward attempts to deal with the county's fiscal woes have earned him recognition, helping him climb in this year's survey from 22nd in 2010 to 13th this year.

But leaders whose visions are too lofty or who are too removed from public opinion have trouble earning the understanding of their constituents.

What has perplexed Taipei City's Hau Lung-bin more than anything is that based on objective indicators in CommonWealth Magazine's Happiness Survey, Taipei qualifies as Taiwan's most livable city. But Hau's own approval rating shows that he has yet to earn the recognition of city residents.

"My own personal style may have aspects that need to be reviewed," says a clearly disappointed Hau. But National Chung Cheng University's Chen believes that aside from individual personality, a strong command of the issues is also essential to convince people of the quality of governance.

As for New Taipei's Chu, who was voted the top local leader in the 2006 survey when he headed Taoyuan County, he has seen the tide turn in his first year in his new job, falling to fourth from last in this year's poll. But Chu understands the verdict his constituents have rendered.

"At this point, there is still no money, and we haven't done anything yet, so how could there be results?" Chu notes. What he was referring to is a pledge he made during the election campaign to build the city's transportation network that he knows cannot immediately come to fruition.

His urgent priorities at present are to eliminate flaws in the administrative system, increase the number of police, crack down on eight forms of illicit business and consolidate the city's transportation system. He clearly understands that "tightening up loose screws" in the city government will take time and delivering more tangible benefits is an even longer-term proposition.

In fact, however, the local leaders who landed in the bottom half of the rankings not only received relatively low satisfaction ratings from their constituents. The expert panel of judges also had trouble seeing evidence of tangible policies or governing philosophies, "showing that they really do have room for improvement," Chen says.

The implication is clear: local leaders must work hard to find the right balance between promoting sustainable local development and trying to satisfy the perceptions of their constituents.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

About the Happiness Survey

The 2011 CommonWealth Magazine Happiness Survey ranked Taiwan's cities and counties based on 44 indicators in five general categories. The indicators are based on government statistics and surveys conducted at every administrative level, and the CommonWealth Magazine public opinion survey.

The Happiness Survey split Taiwan's cities and counties into two groups: top-tier localities comprising the special municipalities of Taipei City, New Taipei City, Taichung City, Tainan City and Kaohsiung City, and second-tier cities and counties. Taichung City, Tainan City, and Kaohsiung City were ranked based on objective statistical data for 2010, when they had not yet joined their surrounding counties to form expanded municipalities. These data were then weighted based on the proportion of city to county population.

Of the 44 indicators, 35 were based on statistical data from 2010, and nine were based on constituent questionnaires. Each indicator was divided into five quadrants between the indicator's top and bottom value, and scores were assigned to each city based on where their performance fell within the indicator. Cities with values in the top quadrant of an indicator scored a 5, those in the second quadrant a 4 and so on.

The statistical indicators accounted for 80 percent and the opinion polls for 20 percent of the total score. The average scores for each of the five general categories were then calculated to create the rankings. The outlying counties of Jinmen and Lianjiang (comprised of the Mazu Islands) were not ranked because of insufficient statistical data.