The Taipei mayoral election is seen as a crucial battlefield in the five special municipality elections scheduled for the end of November. It will be a significant scalp for whichever party takes it, and much hinges on this battle, which will determine the success or failure of the Taipei International Flora Expo.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) leadership has ordered all hands on deck to secure Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin’s (郝龍斌) re-election and has set up a task force to defeat his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rival, Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌). Even President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) joined the fray in the last few days. Hau should find the support of the party helpful, but in the end he has to save himself.
The KMT caucus and the Taipei City Government have been trying to dispel the cloud of suspicion brewing over the inflated prices of flowers and other items bought for the expo, but they have concentrated almost exclusively on diversionary tactics. The latest approach is to claim that the expo is about art and culture, which require purchases that cannot be made in the same humdrum way everyday office items are bought. That is disingenuous to say the least. Of course you cannot put a price on art, but that is no license for being frivolous.
Everyone knows the market sets the price of art, not the artists themselves. Who is the renowned artist or artists behind what the KMT would have us believe are the expo masterpieces? Who was the architect for the buildings and displays? And what of the individual purchases, at many times the market price? Did the money really find its way into the hands of the “artists,” or was it mislaid, pocketed by contractors or returned as kickbacks?
It is important that Taiwan host a successful international flora exposition. The question is how best to achieve this. The expo is supposed to highlight Taiwan’s indigenous flora, but the flower season is in the spring and summer. Hau, however, chose to open the expo in November to coincide with the elections. The majority of Taiwan’s native flora comes from the center and south of the island, not Taipei City, the political center of the country. The timing and location of the expo was chosen by the KMT to fit its own interests. It’s no wonder the DPP sees it as an easy target.
In a bid to help Hau, Ma accused the DPP of disloyalty to the nation, saying that spoiling the expo would hurt Taiwan, and not help the DPP. Yes, the public should unite behind an event that showcases the nation, but that doesn’t mean a blind eye must be turned to everything. There is right and there is wrong.
The budget estimate submitted by Hau’s team rose from NT$3 billion (US$94.5 million) initially to NT$7 billion, and some city councilors have now put the figure at NT$14 billion. The city government has taken responsibility for more than NT$9 billion. This use of public funds is unacceptable.
The Taipei City Government has tried to explain away the purchasing scandal by saying that the unit price of individual plants is irrelevant, as the tender was awarded to a contractor as a whole, and the contractor would delegate jobs to sub-contractors. However, even if estimates for each plant, individual projects, designs, souvenirs and ticketing were wildly far off the mark, it would still be difficult to believe that the total would come close to the overall cost reported. Even the lowest bid represents a huge waste of funds.