Mon, Jul 28, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Hualien is completely different

There are only five days to go before the Hualien County commissioner by-election and as usual it is being touted as an indicator of political fortunes in the presidential election. Is it?

Well, it is not the case that the result in Hualien is likely to be reflective of national sentiment as a whole, so whoever wins the election will gain little impetus from it for the presidential campaign. Hualien is an isolated, predominantly rural, relatively impoverished county with a low educational standard and a large Aboriginal population which has traditionally played the role of clients to the KMT -- with the result that the county has been in KMT hands for half a century. Hualien is, therefore, totally unlike the teeming cities on Taiwan's west coast -- remember one third of Taiwan's population lives within 50km of the center of Taipei.

Nevertheless the election does hold interest if only because it serves to confirm trends that will show themselves elsewhere and which have already in Taiwan's brief democratic history become leitmotifs of Taiwan's electoral politics.

On the blue camp side there is the by now traditional split of the vote between the man the KMT has selected, Hsieh Shen-shan (謝深山), and the maverick Wu Kuo-tung (吳國棟) who thinks he should have been selected. And, let us be frank: in a different political environment Wu would have been selected. He has the perfect form for a traditional KMT candidate: fighting charges of accepting kickbacks in a land acquisition scandal -- the case is now in the Supreme Court -- shows Wu to be a candidate in the classic manner of the KMT. Wu has been county commissioner before and has a thorough understanding of the warp and weft of Hualien's patron-client politics. Both parties make much of the fact that he lacks electoral resources, but he has, in his years in Hualien accumulated any number of favors that can be called in a place like Hualien these are the resources that matter.

The KMT's action therefore in appointing Hsieh as its candidate, something with which the PFP seems to have grumpily gone along with while some PFP heavyweights actually stump for Wu, is an indication that the KMT tiger is trying to change its stripes. We admit that we seldom give the party any credit for this. But it is fair to say that even 10 years ago there would have been no squeamishness about selecting someone with a murky record such as Wu as the candidate. The fact that the KMT resisted doing the easy -- and undoubtedly effective -- thing suggests the party is taking the idea that it must dissociate itself from its hugely corrupt past seriously. This of course creates tensions which the face-off between Wu and Hsieh illustrates.

The KMT vote being split by a renegade running as an independent has become such a common feature of elections in Taiwan that pan-blue unity is the exception rather than the rule. But this should not be taken as overly ominous for pan-blue cooperation in the presidential election. The contrast in Hualien is between a man on the ground with local connections and a murky past and an outsider imposed from above to boost the party's reform image. It is not perhaps a situation specific to Hualien, but it is a local situation in a way that the presidential election is not. Wu has nothing to lose by running as an independent. Lien Chan (連戰) and James Soong (宋楚瑜) have everything to lose if their natural hostility gets the better of their political calculation.

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