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2010 Local Leader Approval Survey

A Sea Change in Voter Sentiment


A Sea Change in Voter Sentiment


This year Taiwanese citizens are ready for change. Approval of local chief executives from the opposition party has risen, while ruling party approval is on the skids. Why is Taiwan’s "blue camp" singing the blues across the island?



A Sea Change in Voter Sentiment

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 455 )

Even star politicians know that their political life hangs by a thread if they are not able to win voter support. But public sentiment can be fickle as the weather. Who has truly won the hearts of the Taiwanese people?

As part of its annual Happiness Survey, measuring the level of livability and satisfaction in Taiwan's 25 cities and counties, CommonWealth Magazine recently surveyed the approval ratings of elected chief executives at the city and county levels (See Table).

The outcome of the 2010 survey reveals that the Taiwanese people’s expectations toward government are changing.

DPP Cities and Counties Take Top Six Spots

In terms of satisfaction with government performance, the overall ranking saw a major reshuffle, with DPP-governed cities and counties moving up and KMT-governed cities moving down the list. Generally speaking, counties and cities with DPP chiefs improved their rankings and also made a clean sweep of the six top spots. In contrast KMT-ruled localities saw earthshaking changes as their rankings slid markedly. Among them, only Jiayi City, Jhanghua County and Lianjiang County were able to make it into the top ten. Even popular KMT figures with celebrity status such as Miaoli County chief Liu Cheng-hung and Taichung City mayor Jason Hu, who were among the top five last year, sank to numbers 15 and 18, respectively.

"This amounts to a crisis for the KMT," notes a long-term political observer gravely. Not only is the blue camp seeing its decline as the green camp is rising, the DPP-governed cities and counties are making big advances in the rankings. According to this observer, these results seem to indicate that voters doubt the KMT’s ability to rule the country, and that they are thoroughly disappointed with the central government and the ruling party. In the survey, the Taiwanese electorate shows that it is ready for change.

The "blue crisis" is spreading across the island, ranging from the eight counties and cities that in December will be merged into five municipalities directly administered by the central government, to the nine localities where new chiefs took office following local elections last December.

In Kaohsiung County, Kaohsiung City and Tainan City, all ruled by the DPP, satisfaction with local government is high. Incumbent Kaohsiung County chief Yang Chiu-hsing – who last month quit the DPP to run as an independent for mayor of the new, enlarged Kaohsiung City – commands the highest approval rating, while Kaohsiung City mayor Chen Chu, who has served two terms and is the DPP nominee for mayor of the new Kaohsiung City, came in close behind in third place.

Tainan City mayor Hsu Tain-tsair grabbed fifth place, whereas Tainan County chief Su Huan-chih took 13th, which still represented a marked improvement over last year.

Meanwhile, the signing of an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China in June has failed to boost KMT support as expected, even in central and northern Taiwan – areas described by KMT Secretary-General King Pu-tsung as "leaning toward the KMT when it comes to cross-strait policy."

Also, to many people’s surprise, highly popular Taichung mayor Jason Hu slipped from fifth place last year to 18th this year. Taipei City mayor Hau Lung-bin, whose image has been tarnished by allegations of overpricing of an overpass project in the capital, maintained a low rank of 21. Taipei County chief Chou Hsi-wei, whose approval ratings somewhat improved after he announced that he would not run for reelection, nonetheless could not escape the fate of coming in at the bottom of the league.

Young Leaders Fail to Shine

The problem is not only that the performance of veteran outgoing KMT politicians is lackluster, but that younger local leaders representing generational change who won their posts in elections last December have also failed to establish good track records. Aside from Kinmen County chief Li Wo-shi and Lianjiang County chief Yang Sui-sheng whose performance is on par with their respective predecessors, the chief of Taidong County, Justin Huang, who performed best among the KMT chiefs on Taiwan proper, came in only in 17th place. While Huang did better than his predecessor Kuang Li-cheng, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

The biggest slide in ranking occurred in Hsinchu City, where newcomer Hsu Ming-tsai immediately slipped to 20th place, whereas his predecessor Lin Jung-tzer had repeatedly taken the top spot. And although the KMT has pinned high hopes on Taoyuan County chief John Chih-yang Wu, the son of KMT heavyweight Wu Po-hsiung, the junior Wu put up an unconvincing performance in 19th place.

On the other hand, the DPP chief of Yilan County, Lin Tsong-shyan, capitalized on his fresh image, soaring to number two, the highest ranking for any of the nine new local government leaders. Jiayi County chief Chang Hwa-kuan, who gained the full support of her predecessor Chen Ming-wen, even did better than her mentor, soaring to number six.

Why Is the KMT Losing Support?

The election campaign for the year-end mayoral elections in the five newly formed municipalities is about to kick off. The battle drums are already beating, yet the blue camp is singing the blues. Why does public support for the KMT continue to erode?

Citizens expect a lot from their local leaders, particularly in cities and counties with ample resources. Taipei City, which emerged as the most competitive city in the survey, is Taiwan’s capital and the island’s political and economic center. Taipei residents demand top performance from their mayor, but incumbent mayor Hau Lung-bin has failed to live up to these expectations, being relegated to an unflattering 21st place.

The popularity of Penghu County chief Wang Chien-fa has been dented by the failure last year of a referendum on the legalization of gambling, which he promoted. Opponents of gambling doubt his grasp of public sentiment, while gambling operators are disgruntled that the referendum failed. As a result Wang only narrowly won his reelection bid last September and has slid to the 14th spot.

High-profile Incidents Tarnish Images

Moreover, headline-making incidents have caused political fallout for local KMT leaders. In July the fatal shooting of gang leader Weng Chi-nan at his office in Taichung in the presence of four police officers triggered a public outcry over the lack of law and order in the city. In the domestic security category, Taichung City therefore brings up the rear in 25th place. The approval rating of Miaoli County chief Liu Cheng-hung also slipped to 15th place, due to the county government’s open confrontation with local farmers whose land was expropriated for the expansion of a science park.

Poor Crisis Management

"The image and crisis management ability of a city mayor or county chief are more important for ordinary people," notes Lin Chuan, professor at the Department of Economics of National Taiwan University. Yet the good images that Jason Hu and Liu Cheng-hung painstakingly cultivated have been badly tarnished due to their poor crisis management.

Local KMT leaders also find it difficult to break the prevailing anti-KMT sentiment, which results from widespread dissatisfaction with the central government. The local DPP chiefs, however, benefit from this trend, boosting their popularity. In Kaohsiung and Pingdong counties, which were both hard hit by Typhoon Morakot last year, DPP county chiefs Yang Chiu-hsing and Tsao Chi-hung enjoy unbroken popularity, with public approval even rising over last year, although both counties have not yet recovered from the disaster. But Ming-ju Wu, assistant professor at the Department of Social Welfare of National Chung Cheng University, avers that people are aware who is to blame. "It’s not because the two did a good job handling the crisis, but because the central government handled it terribly."

Wu, who has done research in the south for many years, believes that in times of crisis or major accidents at the local government level, the central government puts political considerations before extending a helping hand. Usually the central government is busy defending its moves or even fighting with local chiefs, but does not have the sincerity to actively assist them in solving their problems. Such an attitude gives ordinary citizens the feeling that they aren’t receiving any care from the government, says Wu.

Misjudging Public Sentiment

Local KMT leaders tend to easily misread public sentiment because they do not get in touch with people at the grassroots. The KMT firmly believed that an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China would find more support in urban areas. Consequently, it hoped that the conclusion of the free trade pact would boost the KMT’s election campaign in the upcoming "five municipalities" elections.

How come voters don’t buy into the KMT’s cross-strait vision? On the one hand voters still harbor a lot of concerns regarding Taiwan’s relations with China. They notice that many local government leaders visit China to promote their localities, but that these efforts do not yield tangible results or concrete improvements in everyday life.

Across the island people are out of work and unable to find jobs, while the salaries of young people have stagnated or even shrunk over the last decade. And when people are struggling for their livelihoods, the government responds by cutting the taxes of the wealthy, creating the impression that it has mixed-up priorities.

Moreover, the central government and local leaders are too eager to lure Taiwanese investors back to Taiwan. Heaving a sigh, Wu remarks that Taiwanese entrepreneurs invest for a reason, namely because China offers special conditions that they can’t find in Taiwan. But if the central government falls over its feet to demonstrate efficiency and a pro-industry attitude, this only causes a greater conflict between "developmentalism" and "environmentalism." Environmental concerns and economic interests have been clashing in several controversial industrial projects such as the expansion of the Jhunan section of the Hsinchu Science Park in Miaoli County, or the third and fourth expansions of the Central Taiwan Science Park in Houli, in Taichung County, and Erlin, in Jhanghua County.

ECFA has not met with the expected enthusiasm, because it is a strategy of the central government that has taken place at too high a level, and people at the grassroots have not yet felt any substantive benefits. Still, the KMT has made ECFA the core of its election campaign.

Chen Dong-sheng, professor at the Department of Sociology of National Taiwan University, notes that the current working generation has many more immediate concerns. They worry about the future of their kids – will Taiwan’s education system provide them with enough skills to find good, permanent and stable jobs – the long-term care needs of their elderly parents and the state of their own health and health insurance. "Only the person who is able to make the system fairer and takes into account ordinary people’s hardships will be able to gain public support," Chen predicts. Since ECFA does not address these immediate and very real concerns, the KMT keeps losing voter support.

New Chiefs Not Up to Speed

Since the new mayors and chiefs didn’t get up to speed in their new posts, they failed to gain support. Regarding John Chih-yang Wu’s continuously declining popularity, a community college principal, who did not want to be named, pointed to Wu’s lack of administrative experience in comparison to his predecessor Eric Li-luan Chu. Wu is quite young and served as legislator before stepping down during his second term to become Taoyuan County chief. His low ranking shows that he needs to make greater efforts to understand what the county’s citizens want and need, the principal notes.

Hsinchu City registered such a big decline over last year’s survey because its new mayor Hsu Ming-tzai does not make the rounds in the city, unlike his highly popular predecessor Lin Jung-tzer.

But not in all cases the KMT chiefs have their own performance to blame for their dismal showing. As Chang Yu-tsung, assistant professor of political science at National Chengchi University, observes, "Sympathy for a certain political party will also reflect in approval for that party’s city mayors and county chiefs." In other words, if large segments of society are disenchanted with the ruling KMT, the local KMT chiefs become scapegoats.

DPP Advantage 1: Fingers on the People’s Pulse

Of course the local DPP leaders benefit from the current anti-KMT mood as the pendulum swings their direction. But somehow they are also more able to gauge public opinion. Kaohsiung County chief Yang Chiu-hsing earned the most praise for his weekly "Citizens’ Time," where county residents are able to voice their concerns and Yang immediately designates officials to address their problems. Yang is a familiar face in the county as he often tours towns and villages to talk to the locals. Jiayi County chief Chang Hwa-kuan also endeavors "to walk every mile" in her county, which gives citizens the feeling that she does her job wholeheartedly.

Kaohsiung City mayor Chen Chu believes that good governance means massively expanding greenery in her heavily polluted port city. Aside from cleaning up rivers, Chen also plans to use a piece of prime real estate owned by the city for a wetland park. As a result, Kaohsiung residents can identify with their city and develop pride in it.

Tainan City mayor Hsu Tain-Tsair is making good use of the city’s academic resources, inviting experts to provide scientific evidence before policy decisions are made. Although he has said that funds for community activities will be cut markedly, the majority of Tainan citizens still back him.

DPP Advantage 2: Strong Teams, Good Marketing

Among the secret weapons of most DPP mayors and chiefs are strong leadership teams and good public relations. Yilan County chief Lin has a good image and a gift for eloquence. Lin Hsiu-feng, who works in the field of social welfare in Yilan, feels that the county chief’s team is not only very proactive and gets things done, but also stands out for its creativity in designing promotional events. The just-concluded Yilan International Children’s Folklore and Folkgame Festival, for example, drew more than 600,000 visitors, not only fueling Yilan citizens’ sense of pride, but also bringing in a lot of money.

Yilan County got good grades from the expert team mainly for the forward-looking orientation of its government. Experts from culture and education believe that the Yilan County government’s support for community colleges is quite high. By running these community colleges the government has established a very good model of cooperation with local communities, making close dialogue possible. As a result, the county government has built a good reputation for its education system, from grade school all the way up to adult courses.

On the other hand, the image of Taipei County chief Chou Hsi-wei is fragmented, despite the huge sums he has spent on public relations. Peng Su-hua, head of the Taipei County Parents’ Association approves of Chou’s efforts to introduce real-life English in school to replace the teaching of repetitive textbook phrases. But Chou "does not understand how to sell his ideas," Peng opines. She likens Chou’s promotional approach to cutting a cake in so many small pieces that in the end the tiny bits and pieces don’t get anyone’s attention.

The KMT needs to take the outcome of this survey as a serious warning. Political science professor Chang Yu-tsung, a long-time observer of elections in Taiwan, warns that voters cast their ballots not only based on the performance of a mayor or county chief, but will also take into account his or her party affiliation. This means that party image affects voting decisions.

The survey has highlighted the crisis of the ruling party. The question now is whether the KMT will be able to turn crisis into opportunity. Will the DPP be able to continue to capitalize on the KMT’s lackluster performance? The people wait and see who will be able to bring them happiness.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

About the Survey

The 2010 CommonWealth Magazine Happiness Survey was conducted between July 14 and August 8, 2010. A total of 13,444 valid responses were obtained via telephone using stratified random sampling. Each of the 25 cities and counties under the jurisdiction of the Taiwan government was surveyed as a separate unit. Valid responses per county and city ranged between 500 and 650, depending on total population.

(Lianjiang County, comprised of the outlying Matsu islands, had 315 valid responses, yielding a margin of error of plus/minus 5.5 percent.)

The poll had a confidence level of 95 percent and a margin of error of plus/minus 4.4-3.8 percent for each area surveyed. The margin of error for the entire area surveyed was plus/minus 0.8 percent. Statistical representativeness verification and weighted processing were applied to all data, based on gender, residence, age and educational level.

Chief executive ranking: As part of the overall Happiness Survey, CommonWealth Magazine also ranked Taiwan’s city mayors and county chiefs according to relative satisfaction with their performance.

In addition to the public opinion survey, CommonWealth Magazine also asked the National Association for the Promotion of Community University; United Way of Taiwan; the National Association of Small & Medium Enterprises R.O.C.; and the Society of Wilderness, to recommend a number of experts in their respective fields, who then rated the performance of local leaders. A total of 499 experts took part in the approval survey on local chief executives. The scores given by the public at large accounted for 80 percent and the expert scores for 20 percent of the final ranking.