In an attempt to make good on President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) election promises, earlier this month the legislature hurriedly passed amendments to the Local Government Act (地方制度法). The hasty and slapdash piece of legislation is tailor-made for the merger of Taichung City and County and their scheduled upgrade to municipality status next year.
The move has been denounced as unfair by residents of other cities and counties around Taiwan, with calls for administrative reform to be applied across the board. Amid the clamor, there has been speculation that the KMT will use an upgrade of Taipei County’s status to manipulate the outcome of the county’s local government elections at the end of the year.
Reform of administrative divisions is an essential and urgent task for maintaining the nation’s competitiveness. However, a blueprint for the reforms has not been made available to the public. Until then, attempts to manipulate the issue to promote individual parties or politicians at the expense of the public interest must be monitored. If the public remains vigilant, those in power will have to act with restraint.
With various counties and cities stating their cases, at least seven schemes for administrative upgrading have been put on the table.
These include the merging of and a status upgrade for Taichung County and City, Kaohsiung County and City, Tainan County and City, and Yunlin and Chiayi counties, as well as a status upgrade for Taipei, Taoyuan and Changhua counties. The reason why so many jurisdictions are clamoring for this treatment is that they are mindful of the government and legislature’s desire to avoid breaking a key election commitment.
But the government and the legislature have failed to come up with complementary measures dealing with inequalities in tax revenue distribution. And in amending the Local Government Act, the legislature added a supplementary resolution that prevents the Ministry of the Interior from unilaterally deciding which counties and cities can be upgraded.
Instead, all proposals must first be submitted by local governments and approved by county and city councils. Thus, the president’s top-down conception of implementing these reforms has been overturned and turned into a bottom-up enterprise. County and city governments and councils, fretting that they might end up as second-class citizens, have clamped themselves to the upgrade debate.
Ma’s election promises go beyond next year’s merger of Taichung County and City. They say that by 2014 Taiwan will be reorganized into three municipalities (north, central and south) and 15 counties.
But Ma’s agenda must overcome several challenges. It had been suggested that Taipei City and County merge with Keelung City to create a northern metropolis, but now, with Taipei County residents demanding that their county be upgraded on its own, there are reports that Taipei County will be elevated ahead of any merger. Therefore, there is also talk that the year-end election for Taipei County commissioner may be postponed. Conspiracy theories abound, asserting that the noble idea of upgrading the county’s status has been manipulated for political reasons. One way or another, the overall result is central government mismanagement.
Taipei County, with a population of more than 3.8 million, does meet the conditions for an upgrade. In lobbying for this, Taipei County Commissioner Chou Hsi-wei (周錫瑋) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and his predecessor threatened to resign if a merger between Taichung County and City took place before Taipei County’s upgrade. Last year, when Chou was pressing the central government to upgrade his county, Ma would not meet with him. Delivering a report to the Taipei County Council recently, Chou again declared that he would quit politics if Taipei County were upgraded to a municipality even one day later than Taichung. There is a suggestion, then, that Chou’s renewed pledge shows he has reached an unspoken agreement with Ma and the KMT.